When Kirkcaldy’s library had more books than St Andrews University...

Kirkcaldy Libraries adult reading room, 1950
Kirkcaldy Libraries adult reading room, 1950

What would John Nairn make of the declining usage of the town’s libraries?

The man whose money led to the building of the central library would surely be dismayed to read of the downward trend across the town.

Kirkcaldy Central Library 1950 - the adult lending library

Kirkcaldy Central Library 1950 - the adult lending library

But the building he paid for, the central library, continues to buck that national trend.

It remains the jewel in the crown.

It was back in 1926 that Nairn wrote to councillors remarking on the library’s ‘insufficient accommodation in Beveridge Hall, and submitted plans for a new facility in the grounds of the war memorial gardens at his own expense.

He died before the doors opened, but his legacy remains at the heart of Kirkcaldy Galleries where the library, museum and art gallery share the building he paid for.

Kirkcaldy libraries sub-committee 1950

Kirkcaldy libraries sub-committee 1950

It is still the jewel in the crown; a place where young minds can explore, and residents of all ages can enjoy the simple pleasure of taking out a book.

And Kirkcaldy has enduring affinity with its libraries.

As we cleared out our office in Kirk Wynd, we came across a booklet, Kirkcaldy And Its Libraries written b y PK Livingstone in 1950.

Perfectly preserved, it brought to life the history of the service, and the important role it has played across the generations.

John Nairn, Kirkcaldy - his money built the Central Library in town, but he died before it opened

John Nairn, Kirkcaldy - his money built the Central Library in town, but he died before it opened

Libraries had their roots in colleges – no great surprise given the wealth of books they housed – and in 1725 Allan Ramsay began a circulating library.

As the idea caught on Fife had four – Dysart hosted a Trades Library started in 1824, and a library connected with its Mechanics Institute (1849); Leven, Colinsburgh, Newburgh and Leslie had subscription and circulating libraries.

Kinghorn’s library - one of several closed last year and subsequently taken over by the community which refused to let it die – was instituted in 1826.

By 1845 Kirkcaldy boasted five subscription libraries which contained some 4000 books.

Pathhead and Gallatown, not yet in the parish of Kirkcaldy, had their own facilities, while, according to the 1950 booklet, Peter Purves, the great Links teacher, interested himself greatly in the Bethelfield Church Library.

There were also libraries connected to Kirkcaldy (Old) Parish Church and St Brycedale Church as well as the People’s Club and Institute with some 3000 volumes by 1875.

In fact, Kirkcaldy’s subscription libraries enjoyed, for years, the reputation of surpassing all other collections in the country except that of St Andrews University.

It is believed that when the library was first started in the Lang Toun the books were kept in the librarian’s home – there is, the booklet noted, reference to a minute of rent being paid to a Mr Jeffrey for the storage space.

The Public Buildings (Assembly Rooms) at 125 High st were completed around 1819 and a library was set up there, continuing until 1834 when it was closed. Membership stood at 161, and never exceeded 180.

The notion of a public library, as we know it now, dates back to 1850 when they were inaugurated.

Kirkcaldy’s first public library was instituted in 1895, maintained from a Beveridge Trust bequest until a clause in the Kirkcaldy Corporation and Tramways Act of 1899 empowered the levy of one penny in the pound “for the purpose of defraying any deficiency in the annual sum required for the upkeep, maintenance and management of the library”.

Had councillors acted with more speed, the town could have beeen up and running much earlier.

The town was first advised, by Aberdeen Town Council in 1854, but the elected members left it on the table until 1893 when it finally decided to act.

Pathhead was opened on March 12 1896 by Mrs beveridge and operated for 39 years until 935 when it transferred its 12,000 volumes to the Beveridge Halls – now home of the Adam Smith Theatre.

The service experimented with lending back copies of magazines with great success, while an open access system allowing the public to look over the shelves and examine the books before taking them out was ‘’an improvement of progressive significance.’’

With space at a premium, the council took up John Nairn’s offer to build a new library at the war memorial gardens, and it opened in 1928, By then lending had reached a record of 5900 readers.

The booklet noted: “Without a formal opening – in a strikingly quiet manner – the doors were open to the public.”

By 1937 one third of the population were readers in the central and branch libraries, and their appetite for books was reflected in the growing numbers in store.

In 1929, the libraries stock stood at 29,000.

By the time PK Livingstone delivered his summary, that figure had risen to 65,000.