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The Honest Truth: What it’s like to have a life spent at the National Library of Scotland


THE latest crime thrillers sit side by side with textbooks and classic novels. But sometimes the most interesting stories aren’t just on the shelves.

Here, Angus Wark from the National Library of Scotland tells Alice Hinds the Honest Truth about a life spent in libraries

What’s the most overdue library book you’ve ever had returned?

Thankfully, this is not a problem for the National Library of Scotland as we are a reference-only library, but our readers keep material on reserve to use in our reading rooms.

Some readers visit us every day and have material on reserve for weeks or even months. One reader has used a particular book, The History Of The Franks, for the past decade. She has her own copy at home, too, so she doesn’t like to be parted from it.

We’ve actually had to order up several different editions to stop any of them getting worn…

Do you find the same people come into the library week after week, year after year?

We see a lot of the same faces from all walks of life. Some people have been in our team for more than 20 years, and they say some readers have been coming in as long as they’ve been working in the library. We get quite attached to the regulars – and we often worry if we haven’t seen one of them in a while.

Do you have any particularly memorable experiences from your years working in libraries?

The great thing about our job is that you never know what you are going to be asked on a daily basis. Some people from the United States are very keen to be part-Scottish (they‘ve obviously never watched our football team…), and we once answered a query from someone who thought they were descended from Greyfriars Bobby. They were evidently so desperate to claim Scottish lineage they plucked a well-known figure out of the ether, not realising that they had chosen a dog.

People have also contacted us for information about the village of Brigadoon, and on our online chat service we had a question about the size of Wagon Wheels.

One of our colleagues recalls an inquiry from a pipe band in Pakistan looking for Scottish companies from which to purchase their kilts and glengarry bonnets, and another from a person who was searching for a dry ski slope in Egypt. We really do get asked everything.

Do you know roughly how many books are in the National Library collection?

We are a legal deposit library, which means we are entitled to claim a copy of anything published in the UK, so a lot. We currently estimate 29 million items (including maps, manuscripts, newspapers and music) and rising. We also now collect electronic material, including websites, as many companies only publish online and material can be lost if libraries like ourselves don’t preserve it. And as long as people keep writing, our collections will continue to grow.

What’s the most unusual book in the collection?

It’s hard to choose just one, as we have so many. We have a giant pop-up book, more than two metres tall, containing John Byrne’s stage sets from the play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. It is on loan to the V&A in Dundee.

We also have a Sumatran astrological calendar made entirely out of tree bark. It is so beautiful and changes depending on whether you open it from the left or the right.

And of course we have Mary Queen of Scots’ last letter, penned while she was awaiting execution.

Saoirse Ronan,who plays the young, widowed monarch in the new film, came in to the library to view it just last week.

Do you still have to tell people to shush?

Nowadays it’s laptops with their sound on, mobile ringtones and noise leaking from earphones that are the biggest issues.

However, one of my colleagues was recently helping someone in the reading room and was promptly shushed by other readers – so the tables have turned!