Who knew? Sadly, I didn’t until recently and it turns out I actually visited one some years ago and didn’t notice. This was at the National Poetry Library in the Southbank Centre, London when my daughter came 11th in a national poetry competition and was invited to a celebration at Festival Hall. The poetry event should have been a clue, but I think I must have been overwhelmed at the post war architecture and seeing Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage. There are precisely 3 and a bit Poetry Libraries in the UK: the aforementioned National Poetry Library; the Northern Poetry Library, Morpeth; The Scottish Poetry Library, Edinburgh, and Manchester Poetry Library is the bit as it is in development and due to open in 2020.
These libraries are organisations in their own right, they are not collections housed as part of another library, although all of them except the Scottish Poetry Library have an umbrella organisation. They are all free to join, basically functioning in the same way as a public library, but with collections concentrating on poems and information about poems, poetry and poets. The National Poetry Library was founded in 1953 by the Arts Council and passed through several homes until it was adopted as part of the Southbank Centre complex in 1988. It boasts that it is “the largest public collection of modern poetry in the world.”
The Northern Poetry Library is currently housed in the quietly wonderful Medieval Chantry in Morpeth, sharing this building with the National Bagpipe museum and the local tourist information and craft shop.
It was founded in 1968 to be a collection of contemporary poetry written after the second world war. Just like the National Poetry Library, it had several homes before it settled here. It is currently overseen by Northumberland Libraries and is a cosy space to sit and read poetry.
The Scottish Poetry Library was the third on the scene. The poet Tessa Ransford identified the need for a poetry library in Scotland and the Northern Poetry Library became a sort of model for the Scottish Poetry Library. It was founded in 1983 and followed the pattern of both previous libraries in outgrowing space and moving home several times. The Scottish Poetry Library has now settled in a small close off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, situated near the Scottish Parliament in a purpose built building, which incidentally has been expanded and refurbished twice in order to accommodate the expanding collection and poetry events.
As mentioned before, the Scottish Poetry Library is a stand alone organisation taking funding from a variety of sources, with no higher organisation either to shield it from the slings and arrows of austerity or to dictate what it does and does not do. I have to quickly add that I am not aware that the umbrella organisations of the three other libraries do anything other than whole heatedly support them.
Manchester Poetry Library will be under the wing of Manchester Metropolitan University and has been in development for some years. It will be housed in a new building which it will share with Manchester Writing School and Manchester School of Theatre. It plans to stock all things poetry, including film and audio, from the late 19th Century, in a multiplicity of that languages relevant to Manchester and to hold poetry events. It intends to do all this in collaboration with community groups and university schools. It too will behave as a public library, free to join and open to all.