If these walls could talk…

Posted on May 17, 2018 | in 50th anniversary of the Main Library, Archives, Library | by

As we celebrate our 50th anniversary at George Square, we’re delving into the history of the Main Library through the digital archive of The Student newspaper.

Here are some moments in time where the library featured in The Student newspaper.

1982: Library Sit-in

In March 1982, The National Union of Students organised the “Grants Week of Action”, an attempt to persuade the Government to rethink the University Grant Cuts it had proposed. As Mary Braid wrote for The Student, “With the student standard of living having fallen by 21 percent in the last 20 years – two-thirds of that fall has occurred since the present Government took office – and higher levels of parental contributions, university cuts and a 4 percent grant ‘increase’ for next year doing nothing to improve the situation, many students feel it is time to make a stand”.

The new Government Budget proposed a 4% “rise” in University Grants. However, the majority response was that this would do absolutely nothing in the face of inflation, rent increases and previous cuts. Keith Joseph, the Education Minister for Education at the time, responded that “Students must take part-time jobs and take out loans from either parents or from a bank to tide them over their period of full-time education”.

Mark Kennedy, President of Edinburgh University’s Students’ Association claimed Joseph was “off his rocker”, citing rising unemployment levels, the reluctance of banks to give out loans to students who could not pay them back, and many parents inability to afford such loans as evidence of this. He also made the following statement at a University Week of Action Event: “I’m sick of being told to be sensible and to negotiate. I’m sick of being responsible. We’ll be responsible when the Government is responsible and treat us the way we deserve”.

In this spirit, a round the clock library sit-in was organised in support of the Week of Action. It began on Monday the 1st of March and was intended to last four days. Speakers were organised for each evening of the sit-in to present their views on the grant cuts, including Willie Roe (one of the candidates for the coming rectorial elections) and Neil Stewart (Chairperson of the National Union of Students). While it was met with disapproval from Library staff, it went down well with the National Union of Students, and all activities were faithfully recorded by The Student Newspaper.

You can read the full coverage of the sit-in in the last copy of the paper for February and both copies in March 1982.

1982 – The Student newspaper archives on the sit-in

1985: Fire in the Library

The same month that Elvis Costello performed in the Edinburgh Playhouse also brought the Great Fire of Edinburgh University Library. Well, nearly. The headline of the October 1985 issue of The Student read “Library burnt to the ground! (well, nearly)”. As the title suggests, the incident was not as high drama as the cover of the journal initially made us believe.

It was around 11 am on Monday the 22nd of November 1985 that people first noticed plumes of smoke rising into the sky from the Main Library building. Unbeknownst to many, the fire was in fact on the outside of the building, hence why the fire alarm had not sounded. Frantic activity ensued, and the fire brigade were called. In the words of Iain Cameron, The Student’s reporter for the event, upon the arrival of the fire brigade “spectators were rapidly discovering that a lot of smoke does not, thankfully, mean a lot of fire, as a single fireman extinguished the fire in minutes”. It was revealed by said fireman that the incident was a result of the tar that was being used to repair the roof overheating and igniting.

By 11.30 am the Library was back in business and the only significant consequence of this particular episode was half an hour of confusion. Nevertheless, it is part of the Library’s story, and is well told by Cameron in his article for The Student, who fuses informational pointers with a witty commentary throughout. To read the piece in full, click on the link below and open the fourth available copy under October.

October 1985 – The Student archives on the library fire

Not only a site of political protest then but a site of minor fires…what will be next for the Library?

By: Ellen Embleton, Library volunteer


Be part of the library’s history by sharing your memory of the library! We are creating an archive of current and former student and staff memories.

You can submit your memories via our websiteFacebook or Twitter pages #UoElib50. Photos and videos are welcome!

Your memories could end up on  our interactive timeline – commemorating our 50th birthday while creating a digital archive of the people who make up our library.

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