So what’s the best bit about writing a book? Well, it’s rarely the actual writing, I can tell you that much. In the case of The Edinburgh Dead, it was the research, so you’ll have to forgive me if I digress from the main thread of the Photo-Trailer in order to dispense some heartfelt affection.
In 1710, the Library of the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh was granted the right to claim, from its publisher, a copy of every book published in Great Britain. So for three hundred years it, along with a select few other institutions, has been steadily, remorsely amassing a vast, almost unimaginable compendium of the written word. It became the National Library of Scotland, and in 1956 took up its present abode behind an admittedly somewhat forbidding facade on George IV Bridge (a bridge that, by convenient coincidence, does get a mention or two in The Edinburgh Dead, since it was being built at the time of the novel).
Behind that unshowy exterior lies a world of wonder and dreams. It is the manual, analogue internet, and a place, I think, in may ways far richer and deeper and more intoxicating than the digital version that rules our lives now. There are no hyperlinks to guide you, no Google to impose its presumptive structures upon your wanderings. You have to do the work yourself. Hold the books in your hands; read not short, snappy summaries but page after page of considered text; follow trails through quotations and references and indexes. Map out your own exploration, and do it slowly, with care and reflection.
That modest doorway is the portal to centuries of human thought upon every conceiveable subect. The NLS currently holds over 14 million printed items in their collections. 14 million. And it is freely available to anyone with the inclination and cause to investigate it. What a thing. What a wondrous, wonderful thing.
Within, beyond the obligatory cafe (which does rather good tea, by the way – the diligent researcher must know where his restorative refreshments are going to come from) and cloakroom and exhibition space, a relatively modest stairway leads us up towards the light, towards the doors of the reading room.
That’s the doors there, and I took my camera no further, because snooping around in there taking photos seemed unlikely to be welcomed. So we’ll have to make do with this little snapshot I pinched from the NLS’ own website.
The Reading Room’s a modest space – demure – unlike the cavernous, crowded reading rooms of the British Library in London. Always busyish, but never overcrowded. Wonderfully quiet, of course, save for the tip-tap of fingers upon laptops and the occasional cough from the assembled readers.
Who are a diverse lot, as befits the clientele of a national library. Students and academics, of course, but amateur researchers too, hobbyists and genealogists, writers and readers of all sorts. Each one of them in his or her own world, immersed in the mental space created by printed words upon a page; words that have been brought forth from the vast, unseen storage spaces that reside in that same building or other sites around the city like some titanic literary iceberg whose merest, random tip is each day brought forth into the light by the specific requests of those visiting the library.
And while you wait for the books you have requested to be produced for your perusal, you can browse the shelves, where an eclectic selection of stuff awaits your curiosity. That’s where I found the old proceedings and records of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, which – like George IV Bridge – can be found within the pages of The Edinburgh Dead. The Society was founded way back in 1780, and is still going today, which makes it almost, but not quite, as venerable an institution as the National Library of Scotland.
Above the door of the NLS, obvious to all as they depart, is a map that says as much as any words can about how deeply into the past go the foundations of the building. It shows Edinburgh as it was three hundred years ago, when the seeds of the National Library were sown. The city – and the world – may have transformed around it, but the idea that the Library embodies and fulfils is still there, unchanged. And a jolly good idea it is too.
Previous instalments of The Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer: