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Kirkcaldy's Public Libraries

 The 50 Objects team can often be found burrowing for inspiration and evidence amongst the treasures of the Local Studies room in what is now called Kirkcaldy Galleries but is still fondly referred to by many as simply, 'the library'.

It is therefore fitting that one of our stories should focus on the early days of the town's public library service - and the role of one librarian in particular.


Guest writer Kerry Briers pays tribute Miss Mary Macbean, whose dedicated work in the first half of the last century ensured that Kirkcaldy's newly extended public library would become a beacon of literacy and culture for all.

The town can thus be very proud of having nurtured and made freely accessible both book and art collections which have been the envy of many a larger burgh.


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Kirkcaldy's Public Libraries
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Beveridge, Nairn and MacBean

Kirkcaldy's Public Libraries

 The 50 Objects Team are delighted to once again see Kerry Briers return as a guest author. Kerry recently researched and published the informative and entertaining account of Mr Tait's Whale. This time, Kerry return with a subject close to her heart – libraries. Kerry is a librarian currently employed by the University of Dundee at their Kirkcaldy Campus. Along with her love of books and libraries, Kerry has a deep interest in local history and heritage. When the idea of writing about the founding of libraries in the Lang Toun – there  really was only one person to approach.


We were delighted when Kerry accepted our offer and we hope that you will enjoy reading this short but nonetheless interesting and informative piece. Please do not forget that the full story, enhanced with photographs and newspaper clippings, can be reached from the icon on this page. It is well worth the effort to learn the part the well known figures of Michael Beveridge and John Nairn played  in the history of the library. What is possibly even more interesting is the significant 43 years of dedicated service provided by Miss Mary MacBean – another name which with the passage of time has slipped under the radar:-                    


For this month’s 50 objects I am going to explore a place and a person; Kirkcaldy’s public library and the services developed there by Miss Mary Macbean, Kirkcaldy’s first female public librarian. She was appointed in 1901, aged 20 and continued to work as a librarian in Kirkcaldy Central Library until her death in 1943. 


The first public library in Kirkcaldy was located across the road from the current library building in a small hall within The Adam Smith and Beveridge Memorial Halls. It was officially opened on the 11th October 1899 by Andrew Carnegie but unlike the Carnegie libraries, the funding to build it did not come from him. 


Mr Alexander Gow was the first person who left money for a public library in Kirkcaldy. Mr Beveridge, whilst Provost, started a campaign to build a memorial to Adam Smith and settled on building a hall and library. A subscription was initiated but the majority of funding came from a bequest on Beveridge’s death, which was used for a public park, free library, and hall for Kirkcaldy.  


Speaking at the opening ceremony Mr Carnegie mentioned that in his experience of building libraries he had realised “that halls were their fit and needed companions.” and “a great unifying influence making each citizen more of a kindly neighbour of his fellows” (Glasgow Herald, 12th October 1899). To promote the Kirkcaldy halls use for a range of events, he donated an organ worth £3000. 


This was not the first library in Kirkcaldy. The Beveridge Branch Library (later known as the Pathhead Branch Library), also paid for from the Beveridge bequest, was opened in March 1896. It was housed in the gallery of the Pathhead Halls. The Dundee Courier (13th March 1896) reported that “On account of the great length of the town, the Council thought it advisable to provide a Branch Library for the Pathhead and Gallatown district”.  


An article in The Fifeshire Advertiser (8th June 1895) discussed the strong possibility of a dangerous influence a public library may have on the female readers of Pathhead and Gallatown. While advocating strongly for the Free Libraries Act, it thought that it should warn of the evil of fiction when used “not wisely but too well”. The article did not condemn all novel reading just “reading nothing else, and doing nothing else, unless compelled by stern necessity.” 


In addition to the stock, the appointment of the librarian for the Pathhead branch was also a cause for concern. A committee of the Town Council considered the possibility that they should engage a local gentleman with connections to the community. Despite this, in June 1895, Mr Robert H. Yorston of Edinburgh was appointed on a salary of 30 shillings per week. 


In contrast to the Pathead Branch Library the librarian was to be appointed after the Beveridge Library had been opened, delaying public use. In September 1900 Mr Yorston, formerly the librarian at the Pathhead branch was appointed with Mr Sandilands succeeding him at Pathhead. 


In 1900 Mary Macbean was appointed assistant to Mr Yorston. Mr Yorston did not hold the position of librarian for long; owing to illness, Mary Macbean became librarian at a salary of £60 per annum in 1901, subsequently supported by two assistants. 


As early as 1916 there is some suggestion that owing to the large attendance of readers, including many soldiers based in the town, larger premises might be required. Space was tight for people and stock. The issue was solved through the intervention of John Nairn who, having gifted the Museum and Art Gallery Building in 1925, suggested an extension to house the library and additional art galleries. 


The extension was completed in 1928, shortly after Nairn’s death, and was designed to hold 24,000 lending volumes along with additional reference collection and reading room. It also incorporated office space for the staff and open access to the collections. 


The Fife Free Press (1st September 1928) described the interior of the new library, which incorporated teak and walnut woodwork, and marble and parquet flooring. The paper was impressed by the “beauty, utility and commanding appearance” of the new library extension. “Kirkcaldy is indeed fortunate in possessing such an outstanding architectural feature, and we feel sure that the townspeople will not be slow to take fullest advantage of the facilities it affords.” 


There was some suggestion in the Fifeshire Adviser (13th February 1943) that Miss Mary Macbean “found full scope for her energies” on the transfer to the new war memorial library building. There the library service continued to evolve.  


In addition to developing the services and collection in Kirkcaldy, Mary Macbean was involved in conversations with other libraries about developing a way to share resources across local services and geographical boundaries. She attended and encouraged other staff to attend professional courses and lectures and welcomed the Scottish Library Association conference to Kirkcaldy in May 1931. In addition to her library work, Mary Macbean also provided a space for the Citizen’s Advice Bureau during the Second World War within the library and worked as secretary for the service.  

Mary Macbean died on 7th February 1943, at a nursing home in Edinburgh. As a librarian the Fife Free Press (13th February 1943) suggested Miss Macbean was a capable administrator, and “largely responsible for building up the excellent library service in Kirkcaldy with her genius for this type of work and a sound knowledge of literature.” 

Both the Fifeshire Advertiser and the Fife Free Press published a tribute to Miss Mary Macbean written by Convener of the library sub-committee P.K. Livingstone. He concluded the tribute by suggesting that: 

“If we recognise the true assessment in life in loyalty and faithfulness in service, in little acts of kindness, in graciousness, and a spirit of lofty idealism then the town is poorer by the passing of this valued servant and friend.” 

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