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Book of the Month

September 2008

Photographs of

 University of Glasgow Library under construction

Glasgow: 1965-1971
Sp Coll Photo A49

This month the current University of Glasgow Library building celebrates its fortieth birthday. In acknowledgement of this auspicious occasion, our Special Collections 'book of the month' features a series of photographs that document the construction of the building in the 1960s. There will also be a dedicated exhibition in the Library's new display area on level 3 from the beginning of October.  

Photo A49/19: detail showing site of new library, 1965

Discussion surrounding the need for a new building for the University's Library began at a Library Committee meeting on 6 December, 1946. Years of negotiation and debate followed. It was obvious that the original 19th century accommodation in the Gilbert Scott building was no longer adequate; having changed little since the University's move to Gilmorehill in 1870, it was overcrowded and outdated, with insufficient space for both books and readers. This situation would become even more critical with the publication of the Robbins report (1961-63), recommending a huge and rapid expansion in higher education.

The building took several years to plan and was conceived by Robert Ogilvie MacKenna, who was University Librarian for 26 years from 1951 until 1978. He wanted flexible uninterrupted floor space with open access bookstacks and plenty of reading space. His brief included "simplicity of general plan, adaptability to changing needs and patterns of teaching and service, and capability of further extension after completion of the full original design."

The designer was William Whitfield. He drew up initial sketches and models for the projected building in 1961. He wanted it to be a landmark to complement the tower of the main University building, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1865.

The 1960s structure was only intended to be Phase I of an ambitious development project. Phase II was to extend the work to the south to create a new museum and art gallery that would be connected to the Library. Phase III would then enlarge the Library to the north, expanding the space in an extension that would be a mirror image of the first building.

Photo A49/1: site of new library, 1951
(click on this image to see a larger version)

Our sequence of photographs begins with views of Bute Gardens and Hillhead Street, before demolition began to clear the site for construction. The area earmarked for the new building was at the crest of Hillhead Street, the highest point of the university site and a central position on campus. It was a confined site, and the planned building was therefore forced to be high rise in nature. Built at a time when the sacrifice of Victorian architecture was not a matter for great concern, gardens and several houses had to be demolished to make way for the new edifice.

Photo A49/13: Hillhead Street, 1965
(click on this image to see a larger version)

Photo A49/19: site of new library, 1965
(click on this image to see a larger version)

The photograph to the left shows the extent of University expansion occurring simultaneously: it is February 1965, and although work on the Library has yet to be started, the Adam Smith building (completed in 1967 and now behind the Library building) and refectory (which opened in 1966 and is now in front of the Library and currently being redeveloped) are under construction.

The University as a whole desperately needed new buildings at this time. After the war, the University Grants Committee (UGC) was permitted to fund capital projects for the first time; extensions to various buildings were approved and new buildings planned. A new library building had been originally incorporated into a radical development drawn up by Sir Frank Mears in 1951. His proposals for Hillhead also included an art gallery, student recreational building, additional teaching facilities and student residences - all to be arranged around open quadrangles connected by covered walkways. Mears' grand design was never realized.

The contractor began work on Phase I of Whitfield's version of the new library on February 15th, 1965. The architect in charge was Philip Sayer. Work would take some three and a half years.

The demolition of the buildings of Bute Gardens was the first stage of the process. This included the loss of an overflow store for library books at 7 Bute Gardens. Since there was no room for any more stock in the old library, some books had to be temporarily transferred to the Mitchell Library for storage.

Rapid progress was made. At this early stage, it was hoped that the new building would be ready for occupation before the end of 1967.

The skeleton of the Adam Smith building can be seen in the background of this photograph, taken on 26th April 1965.

Photo A49/22: demolition of Bute Gardens, 26 April 1965

 Photo A49/25: Hillhead Street, 26 April 1965  

  Photo A49/27: site for new Library, 26 April 1965  

Photo A49/30: foundations, 17 May 1965

click on these images to see larger versions of the photographs


The foundations and external walls were to be the most costly elements of the project. The average depth of excavation was 23 feet, 6 inches. Meanwhile, the presence of underground mining works meant that a reinforced concrete raft (measuring 4 feet and 6 inches in depth) had to be built as a base for the building.

Photo A49/41: Library under construction, 12 July 1965

Photo A49/43: Library under construction, 16 March 1966

Although construction proceeded at an impressive rate, there were inevitably some delays. There were, for instance, unexpected difficulties with the foundations of closely adjoining buildings in Hillhead Street, resulting in the need for costly piling. There was also uncertainty over the planning permission needed to close Hillhead Street once the building was completed; this delayed work beginning on the entrance porch and approach staircase. The hope for an early start on the projected connecting art gallery foundered.  By 1966 it was clear that the move to the new building would not now take place until the long vacation of 1968 at the earliest.

Photo A49/47: glasshouses on Reading Room lawn, 16 March 1966

The Library Committee report for the 1965-66 session remarks that this was a "difficult year that left behind it mixed impressions, amongst which feelings of frustration, uncertainty and strain were probably predominant. The new building, now beginning to cast an impressive physical shadow, also laid a heavy metaphorical shadow over all activity".

Staff in the old library accommodation struggled to provide a service in a congested building that could no longer cope with increasing numbers of staff and students as the University outgrew itself in offering new courses. Meanwhile, MacKenna's time and energy was almost wholly taken up by the questions and problems of planning the new internal arrangement and staffing structure of his new library. 

Photo A49/51: Library under construction, view from East, 16 March 1966

Photo A49/53: refectory with Library under construction in background, 16 March 1966

(click on these images to see larger versions of the photographs)

Photo A49/58: Library under construction, view from East, 1 August 1966


Photo A49/64: Library under construction, 1 August 1966.

Photo A49/70: Library under construction, 5 May 1967

As the building grew, its imposing structure became obvious. It would soon dominate the skyline of Glasgow's West End.  
The building was designed by Whitfield to have a deliberately vertical emphasis. The original building consisted of 11 floors (with an additional mezzanine floor in the closed stack sub-basement). The main core working space was surrounded by six peripheral service towers that housed "noisy" elements such as staff offices, study rooms, toilets, lift shafts and staircases. The towers were structurally isolated at every level to allow for differential movement.

An earlier plan for the building would have produced a somewhat "dumpy" building mass "which would have been unacceptable as a contribution to the total architectural effect and to the distant skyline". Whitfield's incorporation of independent towers was praised by the Architectural Review for changing the outline of the building "from that of a lumpish cube to that of a cluster of vertical elements" thereby making a successful contribution to the skyline. Whitfield himself described it as "a kind of disruptive camouflage" and claimed to have been influenced by the geometrical form of Northumbrian border castles.

Photo A49/71: Library under construction, 5 May 1967

Photo A49/83/1: Library under construction, with Memorial Gates in foreground, 13 June 1967

Photo A49/84: move of books from old library,
books being lowered from the Gallery in the Upper Hall, c. August 1968
(copyright Glasgow Herald: ref E7351C)

The old library was situated in the North front of the Arts Quadrangle in the Gilbert Scott building. It had well out grown its purpose. At the time of the University's move to Gilmorehill from the city centre in 1870, it was described as being "well lighted and commodious, and contains provision probably sufficient at the present rate of increase for the next fifty years". It finally closed in July 1968, after nearly one hundred years of service.

Photo A49/87: books being cleaned before the move,
c. August 1968 (copyright Glasgow Herald: ref E7351)
(click on this image to see a larger version)


The move of books took three months and it was a case of "all hands on deck". A memorandum to all library staff issued in September 1967 had warned against booking holidays in advance for the summer vacation of 1968 as it was not then possible to guarantee time off for particular dates. Markers were placed in books on every shelf in the old library giving the exact identification of location in the new library. Books were then moved into boxes shelf by shelf before being wheeled into waiting vans for transportation and unpacking at the other end. This relatively simple plan of campaign was "enormously complicated" by difficulties on both sides: in the old library, passages were narrow and tortuous, hampering movement of trolleys, and boxes had to lowered from upper floors by pulleys or chutes; in the new building, workmen were everywhere, some floors were still up, and the lifts only worked intermittently.
30 students were drafted in to help with the "heaving and "trucking". However, in another memorandum to his long suffering staff, MacKenna hoped that "you will all join in the unavoidably hard, dirty and lengthy jobs which we must all do before we can say goodbye to our present premises ... the technical term for this is Mucking In".

Photo A49/91: staff moving books c. August 1968
(copyright Glasgow Herald: ref E7351K)
(click on this image to see a larger version)

On the plus side, a free supply of tea, coffee and biscuits was provided at break times - although the ulterior motive for this was to prevent unnecessary time wasted "in expeditions to the College Club and Refectory" in search of refreshment.

Photo A49/88: staff unpacking books in new library,
c. August 1968 (copyright Glasgow Herald: ref E7350)
(click on this image to see a larger version)

Despite all the setbacks, the move was completed within the time envisaged and more than 600,000 volumes were successfully transferred. The new building opened to readers at 9.30 am on Monday, 30 September 1968 on time as planned. Staff started work half an hour earlier to attend a briefing, but there was no opening ceremony of any sort.

Photo A49/100: University Librarian, R. O. MacKenna in the sub-basement of the new Library, 7 August 1968

Library issue desk (Library records: uncatalogued)

In its original configuration, the building provided some 925 reading places and held 750,000 books. It had to serve 8000 students, staff, graduates and visiting scholars. In the long term, with the projected extension, the building would have held 1.5 million books and had seating for 2000 readers.

The issue desk, central catalogue and reference service were located on the ground floor, along with the Hunterian Library and exhibition area. The basement and sub basement contained newspaper and microform stores, cloakrooms, a bindery, machine room/plant areas and photographic department, as well as a closed stack and Special Collections areas.

The eight upper floors each housed a subject or group of allied subjects, with a dedicated enquiry desk staffed by a subject specialist team. In his brief to the architects of 1962, MacKenna had written "The Library is to be thought of not as a storehouse for books but as a workshop for readers using books. The emphasis must be on bringing books and readers together, with the Library staff acting as intermediaries in the process and this should make itself evident as the keynote of the design from the moment one sets foot in the building". The move to a new building had provided the opportunity to reconfigure the library services as a whole and reorganise staff into dedicated subject areas. MacKenna was one of the earliest advocates of the importance of developing reader services, and was keen to make closer contacts between the library and University departments. Many of his staff entered the new library in new roles.

Subject floor enquiry desk (Library records: uncatalogued)

Photo A49/97: the new Library, from the South East, c. 30 June 1969

Huge tower blocks of concrete and glass have now gone out of fashion, but at the time the architectural press were enthusiastic about this modern addition to the University. The Architectural Review stated that this dramatic structure was "important to Glasgow as well as to the university because of its dominating site ... it adds a new major climax to the city skyline". The Architect's Journal was more muted in its praise. It agreed that this was "unquestionably a building of great significance" which "contributes powerfully to the architecture of the city".
However, it concluded that the limited budget had been directed to its external appearance, compromising on its practicality as a working library: "major conflicts exist within it; one must therefore question the balance achieved between image and function, in relation to its fulfilment of the written brief". In particular, the reviewer realized with ominous foresight that - if the projected expansion did not occur - in terms of space it was "already less than adequate for the present needs of a university". He also foresaw problems with overheating thanks to the fully glazed windows; although provision had been made for air conditioning, refrigeration and humidity control had been omitted on the floors for economic reasons, and thus there was no way of controlling temperature in the summer: "Why complicate the problem of maintaining a constant quality of environment by providing extensive double height windows of obscured glass through which readers cannot even see?". Furthermore, the issue of easy movement around a high rise building with only two lifts was questioned. Many of these problems would have been alleviated had the initial plans for phases II and III of the development been implemented. Unfortunately, owing to cuts in public spending and inevitable economic constraints, this was not to be. The connecting Hunterian Art Gallery was not completed until 1978, while the Library extension - originally planned as a mirror image of Phase I of the building - was added in two stages in a much modified design as late as 1982-3 and 1986.

Photo A49/104/1: detail of main floors of
new library, showing original double height
opaque glass windows, about March 1971


Photo A49/104/1: new library from the South East  in the gardens in front of the Gilbert Scott
building, with the Round Reading Room in the foreground, about March 1971


Although lauded as MacKenna's greatest achievement, in reality the new building - at least initially - proved to be a frustration and disappointment. MacKenna had warned staff to be patient with teething problems, predicting that the building and its new mode of service would take about a year to "run in". However, by the end of the first year, parts of the building were still unfinished and several of its planned services were not yet in operation or available. The Library Committee minutes sadly note that "the new building has not been as comfortable as might have been hoped". There were delays in the delivery of furniture; lack of directional signs resulted in a plethora of not so temporary hand written notices everywhere; there was not enough cloak room space; there were leaks; and there was constant trouble with the lifts which were frequently out of action. Finally, the windows proved to be vulnerable to the frequent gale force winds that assailed the top of the hill; some reader areas had to be closed off for repairs, and eventually they were replaced. Some of these problems are horribly familiar even today!

But, for the first time, shelf access to all readers was possible and membership of the library grew. It became a place where students could study and work, while the new pattern of staff organization was successful in providing a more direct service to readers. It took about three years for the new system to bed in, but by the by end of the 1971-72 session, MacKenna could as last claim of his new library that "a coherent pattern had evolved".


Records of Glasgow University Library: this is a restricted collection and is currently being catalogued (MS Lib): enquire at Special Collections for further advice.

See also the book of the months on University of Glasgow Old and New (July 2008) and Glasgow in Panorama (June 2004) which documents the West End landscape of 1907 before the University's further redevelopment of the area.

The following have been useful in creating this article:

A. L. Brown and Michael Moss The University of Glasgow: 1451-1996 Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996 James Ireland Lib Education S271 1996-B

Return to main Special Collections Exhibition Page
Go to previous Books of the Month

Julie Gardham September 2008