Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Carnegie's Gold: Ali Bacon visits her home town and remembers its benefactor

Over the past two years I’ve spent time and energy defending libraries here in South Gloucestershire and neighbouring local authorities where they are being subjected to ever more drastic cuts. This is partly because as an  ex-librarian (working mainly in the academic sector) I feel for the staff, but more because our local library played such a formative part in my childhood. So much so that it won a starring role in my first novel A Kettle of Fish (which I always hasten to add is nothing to do with my childhood - apart from the locations!)

Of course the library in Dunfermline wasn’t ‘just any library’ but the very first Carnegie Library and we were always being reminded of our debt of gratitude to our famous benefactor. (Andrew Carnegie was a native of the town).

Staircase to the new museum
Having moved south in my twenties, it's a while since I had darkened the door of my old library, until last month, when I was invited to speak at  the Undiscovered Dunfermline conference which was to be exactly there. I was already aware the original building of 1883 had been redeveloped and recently reopened as the Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries and so I was both excited and apprehensive to see what had happened to my old stamping ground. 

Well I have to say I was totally wowed, and I don’t think it was just the librarian in me. DCLG won ‘Best building in Scotland’ for 2016 and although I haven’t seen the others I’m not surprised. I took some photos myself, but for the overall feel take a look here

The library now incorporates a museum and art gallery and has a stunning research reading room where its special collections can be accessed. The original lending library is still there for me to have a whiff of nostalgia and I can also say the café (great coffee, home-made cakes!) with its new view of the very ancient Dunfermline Abbey came in pretty handy in the course of our weekend stay.

The new reading room
It’s hard to imagine anything like this £12 million investment happening down here and I wondered if Scotland is just better funded for libraries and culture? Or is it the answer more obvious? Some quick and dirty research revealed funding was shared by the Local Authority, the Heritage Lottery fund and – yes, the Carnegie Dunfermline Trust, custodian of the fortune left behind by ‘Uncle Andrew’. 

Of course capital investment is one thing, running costs another, and I see the opening hours of the new place are adequate rather than generous, so even this architectural gem is subject to normal restrictions.

New view of the Abbey and the library garden
Of course Carnegie gets mixed reviews beyond my home town. I was shocked as a teenager to hear of his other reputation as an anti-unionist who built his fortune at the expense of labourers. This reminds me that here in Bristol many of the city’s benefactors are having their names removed from public places because of their involvement in slavery. Putting the rights or wrongs of this to one side, I don’t think it would be possible to remove Carnegie from Dunfermline without dismantling vast swathes of the town, not to mention its collective consciousness : the traditional endearment to children was  ‘all Carnegie’s gold couldna buy ye’.  

Or has that changed now? At least we can see that Carnegie’s gold is still buying quite a lot.

Ali with her display at Undiscovered Dunfermline 

Ali's historical novel In the Blink of an Eye, inspired by a Victorian artist and photographer, will be published in 2018 by Linen Press.

3 comments:

Cecilia Peartree said...

This is really interesting - I've been meaning to go there and have a look at the new building. My mother was from Dunfermline and we used to go over every so often to see my granny, who had also grown up there. I can remember walking down to the Glen and playing in there.
My mother was always grateful to the Carnegie funds as she received a bursary from them to go to learn business studies at what is now Strathclyde University, and from there she became a college lecturer and met my father.
It's great to see your pictures - I really must get round to going!

Susan Price said...

I'm disappointed in Mr. Carnegie. The Young Librarians' Award for children's books was named the Carnegie Medal in his honour, because he funded so many libraries. You'd have thought he could have stretched his good will a little further, to take in the Unions' fight for better wages and conditions.

AliB said...

Hi Cecilia - yes, you must! I took my daughter on her fist visit to the town and she thought the Glen was amazing which of course it is.
Susan - yes, it is disconcerting, though I believe he may have been more naive than anything else or let one of his managers run away with things. To be honest I should read up on it but have not got past Wickipedia. There was a TV programme om earlier in the year too .... He certainly gave away vast amounts to people who could benefit.