The Scottish Poetry Library is a remarkable place: something magical in the light, the disposition of the building, the acoustics, the ghosts of dead (but silently approving poets) and the astonishingly lovely and efficient staff. This never fails. I am gob-smacked by it: I have never known anywhere like it.

~Helena Nelson, poet and publisher, Happenstance Press

by Erinn Batykefer

The Scottish Poetry Library is the brainchild of  founding director and poet Tessa Ransford.  Collecting poetry, as we have noted before, is an expensive and difficult endeavor for most libraries, and the stacks prove it: often, a public library can afford nothing more than the work of well-known giants published by big-name presses.  But a poetry library, Ransford reasoned, could fill the gap.  It could collect works from presses small and large, creating a new and vibrant resource; it could promote and teach poetry as an art form and generate enthusiasm for reading and writing it.

The Scottish Poetry Library has grown to become that missing locus in Scotland, and is built on three core principles:  free access to both lending and reference collections, a focus on both Scottish and international works for collection development, and an promotional events program that brings poetry to schools.

“Defusing the idea, learned at school, that ‘I can’t discuss poetry.'” ~”Getting into Poetry” session participant, on what he enjoyed most

The Library  has built an extensive network of national and international partners to fund its projects, and maintains a bright and engaging social media presence, but the true work of the institution is outreach.  The annual By Leaves We Live fair is an excellent example of this work: a celebration of small presses and hand-printed artists’ books, the fair draws its name from a poem by Patrick Geddes, echoed in the etched pavement of oak leaves by the Library’s entrance. I had the chance to correspond with the SPL’s director, Robyn Marsack, about the fair and other projects on the horizon at SPL:

“We get up to 800 people through the door on Fair day, and it’s a great opportunity for the stall holders (usually around 20-25 of them) to meet each other. We have talks at intervals through the day by poets and book-makers, and there’s a buzz and sociability apparent – not the day to come in and read poetry quietly in a corner!

“We know that the poetry community will come, but we’re also keen to attract people for whom the word ‘poetry’ is not immediately appealing, so we also hold exhibitions in the summer to make the most of the Festival atmosphere in Edinburgh, when the population doubles with visitors. We’ve exhibited work from our own collection by the influential concrete poet Ian Hamilton Finlay; we’ve exhibited pots and scrolls from Japan as part of a Japanese-Scottish collaboration between the poet Gerry Loose and Japanese visual artists and a potter; we’ve had an exhibition of poems by Paul Muldoon with accompanying photographs by Edinburgh photographer Norman McBeath.”

This fall, the Library will host the final show of a six-exhibition tour of the extraordinary paper sculptures that were anonymously placed around Edinburgh’s cultural institutions last year by an unknown (and generous!) artist.

The Scottish Poetry Library also produces anthologies in partnership with commercial publishers. The Thing that Mattered Most: Scottish poems for children, and 100 Favourite Scottish Poemsfor which the Library also produced a large-print version, were highly successful;  they also produce a translation series, and a series of pamphlets that celebrate outstanding Gaelic poets, in addition to their online publishing efforts.  “Online, we’ve been producing Best Scottish Poems annually for 8 years now, says Robyn.  “Perhaps we’ll be able to print a volume of the best of the best when we reach 10!”

The atmosphere today is quietly poetic, with softly-spoken librarians tapping on their computer keyboards and borrowers gasping in delight or frustration as they look for books.  Now it’s time for me to choose some books.  I feel like a child presented with a tray of cream cakes in a cafe.  They all look so wonderful ~Mary Robinson, blog

Want more?

Check out the Scottish Poetry Library online, connect with them on Twitter (@byleaveswelive) and on Facebook.

And don’t forget! As London hosts the 2012 Olympic Games, the SPL is posting a poem a day from the competing countries on their website.  The poems are also broadcasted by the BBC, and will remain archived on the site on The Written World Map, even when the Games come to a close.

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