Rare Books Collection

Rare Books

Dundee has one of the oldest public library services in the western world. Although the reasons behind this remains unclear, a collection of classical and theological works, principally maintained for use by the clergy, was transferred by Church authorities to the Town Council as early as 1442.

This same collection probably remained intact during the Reformation when the Rev. William Christison, Protestant Minister of St. Mary's, assumed responsibility. He proudly presented a number of his own books to swell the resources which were to assist Dundee in gaining renown as "the Geneva of the North". One of these volumes may still be seen with a contemporary inscription recording his generosity.

It should be explained that the Members of the Town Council had ultimate responsibility for the Library. Care of the books was entrusted to the Vicar in pre-reformation times, and thereafter to his counterpart, the Senior Protestant Minister of Dundee.

This was a time of political, cultural and religious evolution, in which Dundee figured large. It was not long since Wishart had died at the stake for his faith, and the Wedderburns were to risk establishment wrath and exile, by publishing "The Gude and Godlie Ballatis". The assassination of Cardinal David Beaton, in retaliation for Wishart's judicial murder, left an enduring vacuum. In politics and religion, there was all to play for.

The Library however survived despite the unrest of the 16th and 17th centuries. The collection was probably housed either close by or within the Old Steeple when the town was devastated by Monk, and it appears to have survived remarkably unscathed. (This is borne out by a detailed catalogue of 1724, which records a large number of volumes, many of which are likely to have constituted the reformation library). There is a chilling reminder of the siege, in the form of a facsimile decree issued by Monk - the original is in Dundee Archives - requiring, in icily polite tones, that the city fathers demolish the walls as an insurance against further insurrection.

The MS minutes of the Town Council during the 17th century make frequent reference to the Dundee Public Library. It is also recorded during this period that Sir Peter Young of Seatoun (1544-1628), Almoner to James VI and native of Dundee, donated many books and manuscripts that had belonged to his maternal uncle, Henry Scrymgeour of Geneva. One of Sir Peter's sons, Dr. Patrick Young, a celebrated Greek scholar, was made a Burgess of Dundee in 1618. The entry in the Lockit Buik cites Dr. Young's elevation "on account of his Zeal in the Service of the Commonwealth, and for the mode in which he has munificently increased the Library of the Burgh".

The history of the Library remains thereafter largely uneventful, until a dreadful fire of 1841 almost totally destroyed the collection. There appears to have been little or no attempt to rescue the books, save for the extraordinary tale relating to the catalogue of 1724. This was in the vestry of St. Mary's church when the fire broke out, and was thrown into the street, whence it was retrieved by a Dundonian named Smith. Following its lucky escape, the volume was taken to Australia when Smith emigrated there. His descendants, perhaps recognising the value of the work, offered it to the Free Library for a nominal sum, and it was finally returned to its rightful place in 1911. The catalogue was fully restored in the early 1990s, and now takes pride of place as one of the chief treasures of the rare books collection. It is thought that about half a dozen other books survived, including one badly scorched bible of 1569.

The fire was undoubtedly a major disaster, but its devastating effects were largely mitigated by the generous spirit exhibited during that other golden age of scholarship, the Victorian period. The rich collections within Dundee Central Library bear eloquent testimony to the generosity of many learned philanthropists, who combined to ensure that Dundee regained a literary collection befitting its status as a leading Scottish city.

Some of these collections have now assumed an importance in their own right. The Wighton Collection is one of the world’s finest assemblages of early Scottish music, and the Sir James Ivory Collection is the personal library of one of the country’s most important scientists. Other Dundonians to feature in this hall of fame include Sir David Baxter, J. M. Keiller, Edward Cox, A. C. Lamb, Charles Ower and G. W. L. Sturrock.

Books and manuscripts of the Rare Books Collection are generally available for consultation, subject to the presentation of evidence of identity, and submission of 24 hours notice of requirements. Rules governing usage of the collection are intended to ensure security and preservation of the items, and failure to observe these rules may lead to the withdrawal of consultation facilities. Leisure and Culture Dundee reserves the right to withhold such facilities in respect of certain extremely rare or valuable items, or to provide surrogate images. Visitors and residents may use the collection for research purposes during the normal opening hours of the Central Library’s Local History Centre.

The Local History Centre is open:

Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday – 9.00 am to 6.00 pm
Wednesday – 10.00 am to 6.00 pm
Saturday – 9.30 am to 5.00 pm

Staff in the Local History Centre may be contacted on:

Tel: 01382 431550
Fax: 01382 431504