Mitchell Library - Times Past

Posted on 25 May 2022

In partnership with the Glasgow Times, our archivists are exploring Glasgow's fascinating history. This week, Michael Gallagher writes about The Mitchell Library.

The Mitchell Library, home to the City Archives, is one of Glasgow’s most iconic buildings.

The library owes its existence (and name) to Stephen Mitchell. He was a Linlithgow-born tobacco manufacturer. In 1820, Mitchell took over the business his great-grandfather started in the West Lothian town in 1723. He moved the operation to Glasgow soon after, first to Candleriggs then St Andrew’s Square.

Mitchell died in 1874 and bequeathed the bulk of his estate to “form the nucleus of a fund for the establishment and endowment of a large public library in Glasgow, with all the modern accessories connected therewith.” The total sum amounted to £70,000 – around £6.5 million in today’s money.

Charing Cross is the Mitchell Library’s third home. The first was opened in November 1877, occupying two floors of a building in Ingram Street. This building still stands. In more recent times it has been occupied by the Italian Kitchen restaurant and Ingram Wynd pub.

From the outset the Mitchell Library was intended as an institution open to all. “Let it not be said that the Mitchell Library would be a library for the rich,” said the Town Clerk of the time, James Marwick. “The command of such appliances of knowledge as the Mitchell Library will offer to every person in Glasgow is a boon which cannot be regarded as in any sense limited to a class.”

The Mitchell held 15,000 volumes and the first book requested by a reader was a Latin work about 16th century court decisions in St Andrews. The library expanded and by 1891 its stock had increased to 89,000 volumes and led to it “flitting” down the road to Miller Street. This soon proved insufficient and by 1904 the council decided to construct a new purpose-built Mitchell Library in North Street. This launched a competition for its design. As well as drawings of the successful submission by architect William Whitie, the City Archives holds many of the unsuccessful entries, including the drawing by Horatio Bromhead below. These give a glimpse of what the landmark building might have looked like.

Proposed design of The Mitchell Library by Horatio Bromhead

The Mitchell Library that generations of Glaswegians know and love opened in October 1911. This was after the memorial stone had been laid four years earlier by another great library philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie. Lord Rosebery, the former Prime Minister, conducted the ceremony, unlocking the Mitchell’s front door with a gold key and describing it as “the national library of the West”. Sadly we will never know what Rosebery or Carnegie made of the library’s famous carpets. These were laid years later and have legions of devotees on social media.

Although it has changed over time, the Mitchell continues to aspire to its original aims. “As far as practical, represent every phase of human thought and every variety of human opinion.” Since 1984 it has housed the City Archives, a wonderful source of information about Glasgow and its people.