In 1964 Sir Basil Spence, Glover and Ferguson began work on the University of Edinburgh Main Library, an integral part of the university’s post-war expansion programme. Spence had been involved with the university development programme since 1954 when he was offered the post of Planning Consultant for the university. This was Spence’s first university consultancy post and he was responsible for drafting a comprehensive scheme for development over the next 50 years. He was first asked to design the library in 1955.
The library is situated on the southwest corner of George Square, chosen because this was the quietest section of the square. It has eight floors, the top floor of which is smaller and set back to take the form of a penthouse. The ground floor is divided into five main areas and includes a double height concourse area and exhibition space. The five upper floors contain bookstacks that are arranged around service cores.
The brief given to the architects was informed by the Edinburgh University librarian who had researched university libraries in the UK and the US. The core requirement of the brief was that the new building would meet the demands of a modern academic library. It had to serve the daily needs of up to 6,000 students and researchers. It also had to accommodate 2,000,000 books, 2,500 reading spaces, photographic services and book binding departments. In addition, it had to house the central administrative and processing services for the whole university library system.
When completed, it was the largest university library in Britain: each floor is one acre in size with 75% of total floor area adaptable in use.