Art and The Playfair: Speaking to Absent Volumes, or How to Find Books in the Library, Old Style

During the academic year 2019-20 Rare Books worked with a group of third year students from Edinburgh College of Art.  The project was to produce an artist’s book in response to the collections and space of the Playfair Library room in Old College, the home of the University Library from 1827 until it moved to George Square in 1967. The project ended with a photoshoot in the Playfair a few days before the country was put into lockdown in March 2020.   The project website, which shows all the student work, was delayed by the pandemic, and went live early in 2021.

The challenge the students were set was to make reference to at least one book which had at some time in its history been on the shelves in the Playfair Library. To achieve this they had to get to grips with the records of the collection when it was there.

This really was a challenge. Read on find out why…

How to Arrange an Old Library

Like many libraries from the Middle Ages until the nineteenth century, the Playfair is a long, narrow rectangle, with windows on both sides, and bookcases projecting into the room at right angles. It is a particularly grand and elaborate example, having an upper, gallery level, which continues the pattern right up to the ceiling.

The books were arranged by what is called ‘fixed shelf location’, meaning that each book had a designated place on a particular shelf. Each bay was labelled with a letter of the alphabet; each shelf was numbered; and the books on each shelf were numbered. This set of three characters was written in the books and in the catalogue, as the means of finding them. Modern libraries tend to use a subject classification scheme, which arranges the books in relation to one another in a linear sequence, whereas in the Playfair the arrangement of the books was defined by the architecture of the library. It was three-dimensional rather than linear; there were relationships between books on shelves above, below and opposite, as well as next to one another. Larger books were likely to be on a bottom shelf and smaller ones in the upstairs gallery.

The books were grouped by subject into the different bays of the library. For example:

A: Bibles and the Church Fathers (Religious books were put first)
G – K – Medicine
L – Natural history
O – Maths and physics
P – Geography and topography
S – Poetry and literature, including songs with music
T – Language; grammars etc.

Although all the books left the Playfair Room in 1967, many of them are still arranged according to the Playfair shelfmarks. Divorced from their original location, these have been run together to form a series of sequences in the Centre for Research Collections’ stores. It is possible to imagine these back onto the now empty shelves in the Playfair, and get a spooky sense of what it must have been like when it was in use.

However, quite a lot books which were at some time in the Playfair have since been given new shelfmarks. Some newer books went into the open-access classified sequences in the library in George Square; others have been moved into different sequences within Special Collections. Books were moved around even when the library was in Old College, and not every book the library owned in the nineteenth century has survived to the present.


How to find Anything

So, for our students to be able to find books which were in scope for their project, they had to be able to tell the difference between Playfair shelfmarks and those from elsewhere in the library, use both the catalogues which record where the books are today and those which record the collection when it was in the Playfair, to detect books which have moved. If they wanted to base their work on an entire shelf, or other grouping, which was something we suggested they might do, they also needed the records of how the books were arranged.

The easiest place for them to look for ideas was the main University library search tool, the familiar – which will find records matching any words typed into it, and can limit its search to anything currently in Special Collections (choose “Special Collections – Main Library” and “Special Collections – Centre for Research Collections” for books which used to be in the Playfair)

So far, so familiar. But a lot of the old Playfair books are not catalogued on DiscoverEd at all, and it doesn’t help much for anything which has changed shelfmark.

The next easiest place to look is in the library’s last paper catalogue, the Guardbook which was closed when computers were introduced, in 1985. This is still used to find anything which isn’t online, and has been digitised. It was originally on typed sheets of paper in looseleaf binders.  Typed only on one side of the sheet, additions were made on narrower sheets, bound to face the page they were adding to.  The whole catalogue is arranged by author, while anonymous works, such as the Bible, go by title.

The experience of using it is very different from searching on a computer. You need to know what you are looking for and you need to be able to look it up in alphabetical order (The trick was to use reference books and bibliographies before trying the catalogue). On the other hand, once you get to the author it is easier than on the computer to browse, to assess at a glance what the library has, to discover the title wasn’t spelt the way you were expecting, or to spot what you wanted in a different version, or as part of a set.

Even the Guardbook records the collection as it was twenty years after it left the Playfair. To reach back to the Playfair’s heyday there are older catalogues. The easiest to use is the one published by the university in three volumes between 1918 and 1923

This is more manageable to use than the Guardbook, even in its online version, and from the point of view of Art and the Playfair, shows the Playfair room in full use, and contains much less material which was out of scope for the project. There are quite a few spare copies of this around, so one was sent back to the studios at ECA, for the students on the project to use.

There was one final, really scary, set of documents for the students to get to grips with…

How Not to Lose Anything in an Old Library

Catalogues, which allow you to find individual books in the library, are only one of the librarian’s tools for managing the collections. The other vital tool is a shelf list; an inventory arranged in the order the books are shelved. This makes it possible to check that nothing is missing, records exactly what is in each volume, if several things are bound together, and helped to keep track of where there was space on the shelves and where new books could most logically be added.

The last set of shelf lists for the Playfair was handwritten in the early twentieth century. These are still in use, though we now work on a digitised copy. They look like this:

For Art and the Playfair these allowed the students to explore some of the spatial relationships between the books stored in the room, although the handwriting, the crossings-out, and unfamiliar format presented a challenge.

And Then to Make Art

When we set up Art and the Playfair we had no idea how the students would handle this complicated and unfamiliar collection of documents, which as librarians we navigate on a daily basis and take for granted, but were very keen that they should engage with the records and the idea of the library as a space.

As it turned out, they rose to the challenge magnificently. Their biggest initial hurdle was getting over the surprise that they were not only allowed, but being encouraged, to work with very old books. But once they got started they all managed to find something which spoke to their own interests, and then produce something original and true to their own creativity. We were delighted that few of the books they chose were familiar to us, that some of them really got to grips with the difficult shelf lists, and that so many of them picked up unexpected features of their source material and took it to totally new places.

We wish all of the group well as they approach the end of their degree course this year, and make plans for the future.

Early Library Records

Our intern, Nathalie, is reaching the end of the project, working on the earliest of the library records.  She has achieved a great deal in the weeks she has been with us: we have a set of descriptions of the documents ready to transfer into the Archives cataloguing software, and the draft of a research guide to the early records ready to go onto the CRC web page.  These have already helped us answer enquiries about the early library collections.  We presented a short paper about the project and the records at the recent conference of the CILIP Library and Information History Group conference in Dundee. 

Nathalie reflects on the project and what she has learnt.  We wish her well as she goes back to her studies for the new academic year, and hope we have given her the bug for old library records!


The Early Library Records Project began as a project aimed at opening up a series of early records to make them easier to navigate. With just under 55 items to examine in 10 weeks, the project had clear objectives: the flagging up of items needing conservation work, or to prioritise for digitisation, the update of the information available on the online catalogue for early library records and the creation of a research guide to enable researchers, members of the public and CRC staff to understand early library records better. It is hoped that the results of the project will have far-reaching benefits. To enhance the data on the online catalogue, the type of information gathered from the records needed to be consistent, despite their being very varied in kind. The focus has thus been on: their approximate period of use, their purpose, their potential compilers and users and the language they are written in.

The diversity of these records is worth mentioning. The library possesses early press and author catalogues, account books, matriculation registers, borrowing registers, accessions books and subject catalogues. Some periods in the library’s history are richer in certain types of records, but overall, there is some record to be found for every half century up to now. These records not only give us precious general information about the management of the library, but also give us information about the university at large. They also contain numerous precious details which are at times surprising, comical, confusing or enlightening.

The project had its share of surprises. Scientific instruments such as telescopes, microscopes, globes and quadrants appeared from time to time, either in a list of instructions on how to use them, or in an account book when money had been spent to mend or purchase them. Equally, I met with volumes which had unexpected contents. Da.1.5 is such an item, as it is a collation of three different inventories: a manuscript author catalogue, followed by a printed version of the Nairn catalogue, itself followed by a manuscript list of pamphlets and other titles belonging to the library of the College of Surgeons. I was glad to come across a few references in Gaelic, such as the Gaelic translation of Dodsley’s work The Economy of Human Life and a few other entries, all in the 4-volume author catalogue compiled in the 1750s. Some of the earliest volumes exhibited physical conventions of early book production such as catchwords and folio numbers, while item Da.1.15 is a fantastic illustration of stationary binding, only used for certain types of records, especially ledgers. While working on the project, I became acquainted with several librarians through their observations, especially the Hendersons. Together, the father and his son were librarians to the university library for 80 years (1667-1747). Both left numerous notes in the catalogues and account books, and their comments, sometimes stern, allow us to get a glimpse into the day-to-day management of the library.
What is more, the outcome of the project goes further than suggested above. As a range of sources is now better known, new routes for future enquiry have emerged. As we know more about what kind of information can be had in these records, we can be bolder in our research questions. Interesting research could be done on the borrowing registers still surviving, and a study of the donations to the library could also be valuable. Beside these potential routes for future research, the project’s results have also challenged some previously-held beliefs. For example, it has been discovered that what was thought to be a 1636 author catalogue is in fact more likely to be a late 17th century author catalogue.

There have been challenges, for sure. Deciphering 17th century script was not always easy for me, as I did not have any previous experience in palaeography. Formatting the data I was compiling so that it would be easily transferable to Archives Space was also something I had to get my head round. Equally, I had to acquire some elementary knowledge about the university’s early history, its buildings and running, since these elements impacted on the library’s administration and evolution. Yet, these challenges have only had valuable outcomes, most likely because I was working in a particularly supportive environment.
Beside the benefits of the project’s results for CRC staff, researchers and members of the public, a significant outcome of the project is what it has brought to me, as an intern. I have not only learnt a great deal about the library’s management and history in the pre-Enlightenment and Enlightenment periods, but also gained experience in working with archival material. I have absorbed the basics of cataloguing, found out about digitisation projects, shadowed several people’s work and all this has given me an acute sense of what the CRC is about. This internship was a truly unique opportunity which has given me insight into the library and museum professional sector.