World Book Day

On World Book Day, it is worth musing about the history of library collections in Shetland. There have been highs and lows in the process of making books available to Shetlanders over the years.

200 years ago, right after the Napoleonic Wars, well-off men in Lerwick decided that they wanted a library. They formed the Lerwick Subscription Library. It was strictly for people with money: the fee for joining was two guineas, with an annual subscription of 12 shillings. They had a big collection of books.

A few years later Arthur Edmondston, a local doctor who had written his own works, decided that something more suitable for the wider population was needed. He and some colleagues set up the General Zetland Library. They preferred, as they said, ‘the interests of the rising generation and the industrious mechanic to the tastes of the learned and the wishes of the opulent’.

For several decades these libraries catered for their different clienteles. Then in 1861 a group of young men resolved to create something more ambitious. Calling themselves the Shetland Literary and Scientific Society, they founded a library, a museum, and began to present lectures to the general public.

Based at the south end of Lerwick, in the old Tolbooth building, they found a home for a growing collection of books. They received donations of works locally and from far afield. In 1861, for instance, Professor P.A. Munch in Christiania gave the Society some volumes that he and other scholars had edited about the laws of medieval Norway. They are now in the Shetland Archives.

One of the books that Prof. P.A. Munch donated to the Shetland Literary and Scientific Society. It was picked up in Norway by Arthur Anderson in 1862.

The new library had its ups and downs. In 1879 it was only open to members for an hour a week, on Tuesday evenings. The books, someone complained, were ‘mouldering away merely for want of a little attention’. People began to argue for a proper public library.

In the 1890s, when Lerwick was more prosperous, that began to happen. The Society established a reading room, also called a ‘news room’. Meanwhile the Society had already moved a little further into the modern world by admitting ‘ladies’ to the Society’s council, who presumably affected its policies..

In 1897 the library moved to better premises, in the Seaman’s Home (above what was later Solotti’s ice cream shop). They appointed a permanent librarian and caretaker, Sandy Ratter, who did the job for the next thirty years. Things got better and better: we know that in 1922 the library, assisted by the national Carnegie Library scheme, issued 6000 books in eight months, delivering many of them to far-flung islands. Shetlanders loved to read.

By 1948 the Shetland literary and Scientific Society was running out of steam. They disbanded, and the County Council took full control of the library. They appointed a brusque and highly competent librarian, George Longmuir, to create a brand-new public service.

His library was eventually based in a former wartime building in St Olaf Street. Those of us who frequented it still remember the quiet atmosphere (Longmuir didn’t allow rowdiness), where you were likely to find something exciting on the crowded shelves, and the warm reading room where patrons could pore over texts or read the papers.

Part of E.S. Reid Tait's massive collection of books about Shetland, now in the Shetland Archives.

In 2020 (pre-Covid) the modern Shetland Library was lending 125,000 books to Shetlanders every year. Meanwhile, the Shetland Archives, at Hay’s Dock, holds a vast collection of books and other printed works relating to Shetland.

Related Posts

Marion Ninianson’s Roup

Roup is a word not commonly used in Shetland any more, although the Shetland Times in 1962 advertised a house in Scalloway “for sale ...

Read more

Shetland Amenity Trust celebrates collaboration with Shetland Family History Group in acquiring Gilbert Goudie’s Notebook

Shetland Amenity Trust is delighted to announce the successful acquisition of a significant 19th century notebook to the Shetland ...

Read more

Shining a light on Ann Harriet Pottinger this International Women's Day

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2024 we shine a light on Ann Harriet Pottinger, née Hunter, one of many unsung, hard-working ...

Read more

Be My Valentine

It’s that time of year, Valentine’s Day, the 14th of February. In the Shetland Archives Catalogue references to Valentines are ...

Read more

Old style islands courtships

We’re warming ourselves up to the idea of Valentine’s Day. Some might say Shetlanders are not renowned for being romantics and ...

Read more

Shetland's War Memorial - constructed by William Horne

Shetland’s War Memorial on Hillhead is now one hundred years old, and was rededicated with a ceremony on 6 January. The memorial ...

Read more

Christmas in Shetland - 1923

1923, like many of the years between the wars, was not a good one. The Shetland Times year end report spoke of a poor herring fishing, ...

Read more

New poetry book - ‘Love in Human Herts’

‘Love in Human Herts’, a new publication celebrating Vagaland’s finest poetry has been launched today by the Shetland Amenity ...

Read more

The funny story behind some of Lerwick's street names

In the 1880s Lerwick was changing rapidly. As the great herring fishery of that era developed, there were new streets, and potential ...

Read more

National Poetry Day

To celebrate National Poetry Day we asked assistant archivist (and poet) Mark Smith to uncover a hidden gem from the archives. This ...

Read more

Shetland Museum and Archives Launches New Online Archive Catalogue

A new online Archives catalogue has been launched today (Tuesday 8 August) at the Shetland Museum and Archives.

Read more

Alanbrooke and the Kearton Brothers

When archivist Angus Johnson started to read through his copy of Alanbrooke's War Diaries, he did some digging in the archives to see ...

Read more

Preparing for the herring – photos from the archives

George Gen and Sarah Mackintosh, members of our Visitor Experience team have pulled together a selection of photos from our online ...

Read more

Hugh MacDiarmid's poetry - taking inspiration from Shetland's herring industry

In the summer of 1933 a man called Christopher Murray Grieve came to live in Whalsay. Originally from the Scottish borders, he had ...

Read more

Memories from the archives

Grace Leask (née Mouat) shared her memories of time spent as a gutter lass in Shetland.

Read more