A series of posts capturing memories of the Mackintosh Library from academics, researchers and readers
Former Librarian, Glasgow School of Art
So…I have five questions for you and the first one was can you remember your first time coming into the Mackintosh Library and what impression it left on you?
GR: Yes,yes. Right, my first impression of the Mackintosh Library: that was before I ever came here. It was in a book by Robert Macleod, entitled Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It was brought out in 1968, the year of Mackintosh’s centenary, when I really believe very very few people had heard of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and it took a few years before people became interested in him. This book, as far as I’m aware, was remaindered because it hadn’t sold, and I saw it in a second hand bookshop in York. And on the cover was a photograph of the Mackintosh Library in colour and I thought: This is amazing! Then I discovered that this guy had produced this in the early twentieth century before Modernism had really taken off and I thought: This is modernist architecture, but it’s hmm… its full of poetry and romance, which modernist architecture just doesn’t have! So I wanted to know more about Mackintosh and when I discovered that most of his buildings were in Glasgow I thought that one day I would go to Glasgow and see the Glasgow School of Art building. Anyway, a few years later I was working in Burnley Library in Lancashire…Hmm, I come from Yorkshire, not Lancashire, I must underline that… I saw a job advertised at the Glasgow School of Art, and I’d been applying for jobs in art schools and in music libraries as well, up and down the country, places where I wanted to live, like Somerset and Cornwall and so on. And I thought, yes well, if I go for this, I might get an interview and they will pay my travelling expenses and I’ll get to see the building! Especially the library…So Yeah, I applied for the job and they invited me for interview, which was in the Boardroom (the Secretary and Treasurer’s office to the left of the main door). I was interviewed by the Secretary and Treasurer, Frank Kean, who had been at the School for a long time, and the Librarian, Ian Monie, who’d only been appointed the year before. And I was trying to concentrate on the interview, looking round the room, thinking this is great! And then they took me to the Library, and err well, Ian Monie took me to the Library and said: Well, this is the Mackintosh Library. And I thought: My goodness! It’s shabby, it’s untidy, it’s small, it looks old, and that was my impression of it.
(laughs) Not quite what you saw in the book then!
GR: No, no! So yeah… Because it was heavily used at the time. It was the School’s main library. We can come onto that later. But it was overfull, it had reached capacity…
Well, the second question was what was your most abiding memory of the Mackintosh Library, so the one that you really…
GR: Right, well…my impression was that a lot of members of staff didn’t like working in the Mackintosh Library because it was too quiet because for most of my time at the School we were using it as a reference library. We only opened it in the morning latterly, as far as I remember, and practically nobody came in. I liked it because I used to do research into the School’s history there, mainly looking at student records and computerising them, going back…My aim was to get to the 1920s, but I really only got as far as 1900. And so I would do that in the Mackintosh Library and it was very quiet and I liked the ambience. There was a smell, sort of like a furniture kind of smell, and the creaking of the wood, it was beautiful! But yeah, and you could get a lot of work done, then it was quite annoying when people came in. And then there were tours coming round and students, and earlier on janitors, telling people stories about the School which were really off the top of their heads and most of them were inaccurate! (laughs)
Okay, so what was your favourite item in the collection?
GR: Right, hmm, there was no specific archival collection at the time, right, so for a long number of years we had the Mackintosh Italian sketchbook and the students’ Magazine which was produced when Mackintosh was here. They were kept in the Mackintosh Library office. Those were my favourite items in the collection. Hmm, printed stuff? There was a run of five journals, very small, entitled the Journal of Design and Manufactures, which was produced in the 1840s and early fifties by a guy called Henry Cole, who later became responsible for the whole art educational system in the country, and he was using this journal as a means of promoting his ideas. So it’s mid-Victorian, it’s full of illustrations. Some of really horribly produced, horribly designed things , but I just liked it because it’s a historical document, and it’s actually fairly rare, and it’s probably gone up in the fire. And the other thing I really liked, which has been salvaged because it was taken out of the Mackintosh Library, is Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament. We have a lot of copies of that, but this is probably the first edition and beautifully produced with gorgeous chromolithographs. Yeah!
Great, so the next question is do you have any interesting stories to share about the library or about events that might have taken place there?
GR: Right… Well, when we were staffing the library with only one person…One of the library assistants, hmm, not her fault, was in charge of the library on that occasion. And we had in the collection a book, a sixteenth century book, called Gerard’s Herball, and err, I think an illustration from this had appeared in another publication with the caption that its source was in the GSA library. Anyhow, this person was in there one day and in came a man, she says, reeking of whisky, who asked if he could see the copy of Gerard’s Herball and she got it out for him, and he sat down and started to look at it. And then she was called away upstairs onto the balcony and he took the book under his arm and walked straight out of the room, out of the building and disappeared. There was a Scottish version of Crime Watch on television at the time, and the theft was featured on it. But we never recovered the book.
(laugh) That would never happen anymore…
GR: But quite a few books disappeared from the library over time, I mean they have you know… What we might have had at one time , I have no idea… Yeah, okay.
Okay… Hmm, so you mentioned earlier about the library having changed role over time, so at the time when you were there, when you first started, how was it different from more recent times?
GR: Right. Well, it’s fairly complicated. I was appointed in 1977 as the planning librarian, because we had a Department of Town and Country Planning. It had its own library on Bath Street which was where the Department was. While I was there it was relocated to another Bath Street address at the other end of the same block. There was also a separate Architecture library which was in the SRC building in the space that was later occupied by the Vic Café which was brought in from an actual Vic Café in the city and installed there. And the Art and Design library was in the Mackintosh Library. That was the situation when I arrived. The Mackintosh Library was overfull, as I said, it was very cluttered and untidy…And they had done horrible things to the book cases. Hmm, right, so that was the situation…But as I arrived, they were about to occupy a new library space and that was directly underneath, in the huge studio in the north-west of the building, the one in the corner and in an office running off in an L shape from there. That was going to be the main library for all of the Departments in the School and the Mackintosh Library was to be a reference library. So that was the idea, but the planners refused to move from Bath Street! (laughs). So I was stuck in Bath Street most of the time. The Bourdon building was being built at the time when I arrived as well. In the Bourdon building, the space which is now occupied by the library was designed as an assembly hall, because there had been an assembly hall for the students in the SRC building which was now deemed to be inadequate. The remainder of the Bourdon building was to be occupied by Architecture and Planning, the idea being that the architects and planners would share ideas. But when the planners moved in the architects put up a partition to separate them from the planners! (laughs) Okay, so you had the Bourdon building, you know, with the assembly hall and we remained in the space in the Mackintosh building and then the new Director, Tony Jones, decided he wanted the Mackintosh building to be devoted to Fine Art, so he decided to move the library into the Bourdon building’s assembly hall where it is now. Eventually the Planning Department moved to Strathclyde where it eventually ceased to exist. When I arrived there was a principal librarian, who as I said had been appointed a year before me. Previous to that Robin Rennie, the head of Liberal Studies – later it became Historical and Critical Studies and whatever its name is now – was in charge of the library. Under him there were two qualified librarians, one was looking after Art and Design, the other Architecture and I came to run the Planning section. I think there were three assistants, one in Planning, I remember… three and a half assistants, perhaps, because one was part-time, one was quite an elderly lady, Yeah, that’s it.
Okay. And, hmm, and so… You also mentioned that the library at one point was also the archives. Is that right?
GR: No it wasn’t. Hmm, we held certain things which had been donated to the School, what the Director had been given, say, bits of Mackintosh bits and pieces, and he’d go well what do I do with them? Well they’re in book form, so the library can look after them. The Archives didn’t exist as such. The Secretary and Treasurer was, by default, in charge of the majority of the School’s records which were kept in his office and in the store room above. A fantastic resource. Very few of them have been lost at all, they’d just been kept there and they became the Archives. That was a little time after that in the 1990s , I think.