FROM YOUR EDITORS Bibliophile heaven

Why do people become children’s book writers and illustrators? For love of books, of course. Words & Pictures Co-editor, Claire Watts, indulged in some book-love on a recent behind-the-scenes visit to the National Library of Scotland.

I love books. I love libraries. So just imagine the thrill of a behind-the-scenes visit to the National Library of Scotland with SCWBI South East Scotland. Linda MacMillan, not just a SCBWI member, but also the architect in charge of the development of the buildings of the National Library, led us first up the grand staircase to the reading room. Just seeing the magnificence of that staircase, you have to reflect on the importance people – in fact, governments – set upon knowledge in the past.

Left to right, Geoff Barker, Jo Spence, Karen Harding and Linda MacMillan, about to plunge into the depths of the library.

Aaah! The reading room – doesn’t that gorgeous, quiet space just make you want to sit down and WRITE!
The National Library of Scotland is one of Britain’s six legal deposit libraries. Have you published a book? The National Library of Scotland will have a copy. Since 1710, the library has had the right to a copy of every book published in Britain.

Down, down, down to the very bowels of the library we went.
Eleven of the library’s 18 storeys are underground and books are kept in a regulated environment of filtered air at a temperature of between 15 and 20°C. The humidity is carefully controlled – if the air is too dry, the paper will become brittle and crumble, too damp, moulds will grow. (Quick aside, I was expecting to be overwhelmed by that wonderful old-book smell in the library, but in the conditioned air it was scarcely perceivable.) By every door, there’s a poster asking the library staff to watch out for another potential problem – insects that have the potential to eat their way through paper, bindings and covers. The biggest enemy though, is fire. The library’s stainless steel sprinklers are fed from vast water storage tanks, so that any outbreak can be contained in a small area as quickly as possible. Wet books can be saved, Linda pointed out, but burnt books are destroyed.

The book stacks roll together on tracks to pack as many books as possible into the space. Books are arranged by size to save space too. The Library takes in 1.6 kilometres of books every year.
“Why not digitise the lot?” we asked. The Library has already digitised a lot of important items from its collection and is working to digitise a third of its 24 million items by 2025. And treated right, books will last hundreds of years, whereas the material on which digitised material is stored has to be renewed every few years due to data degradation, otherwise known as ‘bit rot’.

Linda’s well used to wandering around the library in semi-darkness. The rest of us needed the lights on!
It was a fascinating and eye-opening tour. While I knew that that the legal deposit libraries stored all these books, I’d never given any thought to the sheer mechanics of storage of that vast quantity of material. Hmm… maybe next time I think I need more bookshelves, I should just try that trick of putting all the same size books together…

Claire Watts is Co-editor of Words & Pictures. You can contact her on

1 comment:

  1. I especially love the fact that "treated right, books will last hundreds of years, whereas the material on which digitised material is stored has to be renewed every few years due to data degradation, otherwise known as ‘bit rot’." - yay for paper books!


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