The History of the Tradesmen’s Library

By George Robertson, FSAScot.

The Library which exists today in Dunfermline is well known and looked upon with much pride by those who frequent it, whether that be when carrying out family or local research, visiting the museum, the art gallery, the café, or simply borrowing a book.   This pride is well placed since the library was the first in the world to be gifted by Dunfermline’s own, Andrew Carnegie, who went on to gift 2,811 libraries worldwide. (1)   However, Carnegie’s Dunfermline library was not the first in the town and we are fortunate to have Alexander Stewart’s book Reminiscences of Dunfermline – Sixty Years Ago, (2) where we find the story of an earlier library which existed in the town, this being The Tradesmen’s Library.   What follows is extracted verbatim from Stewart’s book.

An early, c1905, view of the original Carnegie Library. Author's collection
An early, c1905, view of the original Carnegie Library. Author’s collection.

“The Dunfermline Tradesmen’s Library, which long obtained a prominent position in the town, originated, according to Dr E. Henderson’s account, in 1808. (3)   At that period, books were very scarce and dear.   There were no shilling volumes and cheap editions such as there are now.   There were no cheap weekly and monthly journals, no penny newspapers, nor the endless literary attractions that now exist on all sides amongst us.   Like many important undertakings, it had its origins in a very humble way.   Richard Gossman, William Carnegie (Andrew Carnegie’s great uncle), and Charles Anderson, weavers in Moodie Street, agreed to make a common good of the books each possessed; but finding their stock too small, they applied to some others, and a committee was afterwards constituted, composed of the following members, viz.:- Richard Gossman, William Carnegie, Charles Anderson, Ralph Walker, Deacon Letham, Thomas Main, John Syme, Andrew Aiken and William Meldrum.   Shortly after its institution the little library had to be removed to another place.   On this occasion a coal bucket was washed out to hold most of the books, and in it they were taken away by William Anderson, while William Meldrum carried the rest in an apron.   There were only about fifty volumes or so, large and small, in the library at the time of its removal to William Meldrum’s house in the Nethertown.   There it remained for a good while, the volumes gradually increasing in number, till it was removed to a room in Donald McKenzie’s house, to which there was a separate entry by an outside stair.   It was until then chiefly patronised by the men in Moodie Street and the Nethertown, and was called the Nethertown Library; but after the appointment of William Wilson as librarian it soon became famous, and numbers joined it from all parts of the town.   The members now were numerous, and the nights on which it was open being few, great crowds were often seen standing on the outside stair, waiting their turn.   The library was thereafter taken to a room in Abbey Park Place, behind Dr. Gibb’s house; then to one down Mrs. Vallance’s Close; then to a place behind Mr. Clark’s book-shop; and afterwards for years it was kept in a large room down an entry in the Kirkgate, at the back of the Townhouse.   On Saturday nights, I remember, this place was often greatly crowded.   The librarian, Mr. William Wilson, who was a most intelligent, well-read man, was a man of few words.   He was most careful of his charge, very painstaking, and a faithful, much-respected public servant for many years.

In the year 1819 there were three hundred volumes in the library, belonging to about thirty members.   Down to that period there was no room rent to pay, no librarian or treasurers fees, and everything was conducted with rigid economy.   A short time after the formation of the Mechanics’ Institute in 1825, the Tradesmen’s Library and that of the Institute were united.    As years passed on, and through judicious management, its extent and value greatly increased, and it enjoyed a long period of continued prosperity.   Doubtless, too, it was a source of untold pleasure and benefit to thousands of the readers who belonged to it, and it shed many a ray of light and hope into the homesteads of the working men and women of Dunfermline.   Little did the small self-elected committee at the outset of the library’s career, ever imagine that it was going in course of time to be so great a power for good to many thousands, as it afterwards became.   Truly those few humble men did something in their day and generation to advance the moral and intellectual elevation of their fellow-men around them.

The original Tradesmen's Library, Nethertown, Dunfermline. Sketch by William Thomson 1902
The original Tradesmen’s Library, Nethertown, Dunfermline.
Sketch by William Thomson 1902.

Not with-standing the limited number and narrow range of the literary works they had in those days, they made a good use of such books as came in their way.   They thoroughly mastered them, and were able to discuss the merits of many difficult points, and to speak intelligently of the literary, theological, and political questions of the day.   It is recorded that the schoolmaster of our great national bard – Robert Burns – afterwards went to London, where he lived for a while and learned what good society was, and he declared “that in no meeting of men did he ever enjoy better discourse than at the hearth of the peasant father of Burns.”   The same thing may be said of many of the hearths of the working-men of old Dunfermline.

It is very greatly to be regretted that the bulk of the books now being issued from the great seething press, and being eagerly read, are works of fiction.   Like a diet of sponge-cake, it tickles the palate at the time, but often leaves unsatisfactory results afterwards.

Amongst many of the readers in the Tradesmen’s Library – and they were chiefly working men – there were some great book-worms, as they were called.   Amongst the number, there was a very intelligent, but a rather curious, man who belonged to the Spittal.   He was a most diligent reader, so much so that he performed the great feat of reading the greater portion of the twenty-eight volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica!   When he used to come to the library to exchange one of those big volumes, he always said to the librarian – “Let me hae volume neist (next or nearest ), Maister Wilson!”(4).   This library is now merged into that of the Carnegie Free Library, a noble institution, the generous gift of one of Dunfermline’s sons, who, strange to say, was born and bred in the same Moodie Street where, from small beginnings, the Tradesmen’s Library first originated, seventy-seven years ago.   Over the door-way of this beautiful new building are the impressive words, “Let there be Light.”   Long may it continue to shed the true light of knowledge and of wisdom on all sides, and prove a priceless boon to the citizens of Dunfermline.”

Further details of the Tradesmen’s Library can be found in Volume 1 of the Rev. Peter Chalmers History of Dunfermline, published in 1844, which tells us –

“There is a Tradesmen’s and Mechanics’ Library, at 60 High Street, being a union of two libraries, one of the Tradesmen’s, instituted in 1808, and the other belonging to the Mechanics’ Institution, which was joined to it in 1832.   The united library contains about 2,000 volumes, well selected in all the departments of Science and Art, Moral and Political Philosophy, History, Theology, etc,.   The Tradesmen’s Library is the property of the members, who pay 2/6d of entry money and 1/- per quarter.   The Mechanics’ Library still belongs to the Institution, the life members of which read in the united library, free of payment; they, in other respects, conforming to the rules of the Society.   The Society consists of 170 paying members, ten less than the average of the six preceding years.”

Photo of a Tradesmen's and Mechanics' Library bookplate. Courtesy of DCL&G
Tradesmen’s and Mechanics’ Library bookplate. Courtesy of DCL&G.

Stewart and Chalmers mention the various locations in which the library was sited and further details of these sites are found in a newspaper article, which also gives us additional sites –

“The Tradesmen’s Library after amalgamating with the Mechanics’ Library moved from Guildhall Street to High Street, where Mr. Alston, Watchmaker is now, then to the old Masonic Lodge at the west end of Bridge Street, then to Kirkgate, down what was Willie Simpson’s Close, then to the Fish Market Close and now takes up residence among the Beaux and Belles of Bridge Street.” (6)   One wonders what the newspaper reporter was referring to when he makes mention of the Beaux and Belles of Bridge Street.

We are also indebted to Daniel Thomson who, in Volume IV, at item 112, of his Anent Dunfermline, tells us of meetings held by committee members of the Tradesmen’s Library.   These minutes cover the years 1824 to 1876 and give an indication how books were acquired by the library   One of the first items, recorded in 1824, concerns the purchase of books.   To enable this, the committee decided a loan of £20 was required and this was provided by William Meldrum, at that time Library President and John Scotland, then Library Treasurer.   An interest rate of 5% on the loan was agreed but there is no indication in the minutes this was paid out to Meldrum and Scotland, or which books – if any – were purchased.   The minutes of the AGM held during November, 1843 indicates books were also acquired by the library by means of gifts.   On this occasion it is noted Alexander Pearson Taylor, Grocer and Wine Merchant, Kirkgate and later Photographer of New Row, presented three Sir Walter Scott’s novels to the library, these being Quentin Durward, Woodstock and Anne of Geierstein 

Continuing with Thomson’s Anent, we find an interesting reference to a book which was quite definitely not made available to the library members.   This book, written by Laurence Stern (1713-1768), and published around 1765, was entitled A Sentimental Journey and was the property of the first librarian, Charles Anderson.   The book relates the travels through France and Italy of an English gentleman who experiences a number of what can only be described as erotic adventures.   The minutes tell us the book was kept in a chest in Anderson’s house and despite the pleadings of members, was never released for perusal!   However, and in fairness, perhaps it should be kept in mind in those early days the library committee shunned novels and poetry found little or no favour with them!

Thomson also relates the story of yet another book, this time one of a local nature.   This incident is recorded in the minutes of September, 1859 and involves the library committee and the Rev. Peter Chalmers, minister of Dunfermline Abbey, who had just published Volume 2 of his Historical and Statistical Account of Dunfermline.   The committee wished to acquire a copy of the book for the library and approached the good minister with the intention of doing so.   Mr Chalmers agreed to this, stating the book could be purchased at a cost of nine shillings.   The committee decided to give this some thought and no purchase was made.   However, at a subsequent meeting, Mr Chalmers reduced the price by three shillings and the book was successfully acquired, the committee no doubt considering they had negotiated a good deal.

Thomson’s Anent also provides us with the names of the various persons appointed as the Library’s librarian, they being – Charles Anderson, David Letham, William Meldrum, William Wilson, Duncan Campbell, Robert Gould and finally John Grieve.   Of those mentioned, William Wilson was the longest serving having been appointed in 1820 and remaining in post until 1847.     During September of the latter year the congregation of Queen Anne Street Church, presented Wilson with a writing desk in recognition of the 19 years he had carried out the duty of Sunday School Teacher.   The presentation was being made as he had intimated he was leaving Dunfermline and moving to Galashiels.   During the presentation it was revealed he had officiated for a longer period of time as Librarian to the Tradesmen’s Library and the library members had presented him with a top-coat, an Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible and a purse of money, this in recognition of his work in ensuring the success and prosperity of the Library. (7)

Another librarian traced is Duncan Campbell, described as a Bookseller, who succeeded Wilson and remained in post until 1863.   Campbell’s name is mentioned in a letter which appeared during 1860, in a local newspaper.   The anonymous letter writer was discussing a possible amalgamation of the Tradesmen’s and Mechanics Library with a Subscription Library, which existed in the town at that time and Duncan Campbell is referred to as being the librarian of the former. (8).   The 1861 census for Dunfermline gives us a clue to his identity when we find Duncan Campbell, aged 34 years, shown to be a Bookbinder, employing 2 boys, residing with his mother and three sisters in Chalmers Street, and it is presumed he is the person named as librarian of the Tradesmen’s Library. (9)   It is worth noting this Duncan Campbell published, over many years, books on Dunfermline including Views of Dunfermline and Neighbourhood, together with a series of Campbell’s Dunfermline and West Fife District Family Almanac.

Returning to Alexander Stewart and his wish that the Carnegie Dunfermline Library would “continue to shed the true light of knowledge and of wisdom on all sides, and prove a priceless boon to the citizens of Dunfermline”, no doubt he would be heartened to discover how well it has evolved over the years since it was officially opened in 1883 by Lord Rosebery, to become what is known today as Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries.

Photo of today's Carnegie Library, showing the 1922 and 1993 extensions. Author's collection."
Today’s Carnegie Library, showing the 1922 and 1993 extensions. Author’s collection.

References –

  1. Andrew Carnegie, by Joseph Frazier Wall, published 1989, by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Chapter 22, p. 828.   In this respect, it should be noted Wall, in Item 1 of his Notes on the Chapter, states the number of libraries finally built was 2,589, however, he makes no comment on the reason why there should be a discrepancy between this number and the 2,811 libraries he refers to in the text, p.1101.
  2. Reminiscences of Dunfermline – Sixty Years Ago, by Alexander Stewart, published 1886, by Scott & Ferguson, and J. Menzies & Co., Edinburgh and Simpkin, Marshall & Co., London, pp. 201-203.
  3. The Annals of Dunfermline and Vicinity, by Ebenezer Henderson, LL.D., published 1879, by John Tweed, Glasgow, p. 563.
  4. The Scots Dialect Dictionary, compiled by Alexander Warrack, MA., published 1988, by the New Orchard Editions, Poole, Dorset, p. 377.
  5. Historical and Statistical Account of Dunfermline, Vol. 1., by the Rev. Peter Chalmers, Minister of the First Charge, Abbey Church of Dunfermline, published 1844, by William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh and London, p. 448.
  6. Fife Herald newspaper, dated Thursday 5th January, 1854, p.3.
  7. Fife Herald newspaper, dated Thursday, 23rd September, 1847, p. 3.
  8. Dunfermline Saturday Press newspaper, dated 10th November, 1860, p.4.
  9. 1861 Census for Dunfermline, Reg. No. 424/1.

Finally, I am indebted to Sharron McColl, Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries who, despite the closure of library facilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, acquired for me copies of items held in Thomson’ Anent Dunfermline. Sharron also provided the Tradesmen’s and Mechanics’ Library bookplate, which  was found in a book entitled “Roundabout Papers: The Four Georges: The English Humourists: in which is added The Second Funeral of Napoleon”, by William Makepeace Thackery, printed by Smith, Elder & Co., Waterloo Place, London, published 1872.