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A place in which to find all human life and knowledge

WRITING, as the late, great Cliff Hanley said, is better than working.

Name another "job" in which you can justify doing anything (or nothing) with the excuse that you're "gathering material".

You can even elevate it in the serious stakes by calling it "research"; research being to gathering material what Sundays are to Saturdays: a wee bit special, a wee bit toffee nosed.

When I want to gather material or indulge in some research I often find my footsteps leading me up the bazaar that is Sauchiehall Street towards the Mitchell Library. If there is a better place in which to pursue either activity I have yet to find it.

Finding it, of course, is part of the battle. In the 1970s, a motorway was built in front of it in an act of vandalism the like of which has not been seen since the bombing of Dresden or the sacking of Constantinople.

Consequently, you must risk life and limb if you want to reach the Mitchell. At such moments it is easy to understand how Hannibal felt when crossing the Alps.

I have been visiting the Mitchell for four decades. In the early days, when I first made acquaintance with it, my main sentiment was envy. At the time I was employed in a reference library in Edinburgh which seemed to me huge.

The Mitchell soon dispelled that fantasy. It really was huge, the largest library of its kind, so its convivial staff never ceased to remind me, in Europe if not the world. If there were libraries in Outer Space, they fantasised, they could never compete with the Mitchell and its rare contents.

Hyperbole, needless to remark, is a Glaswegian trait. So, too, is gigantism. For reasons which psychiatrists might perhaps be able to explain, everything in Glasgow must be bigger and better than anything elsewhere. One can only imagine the chagrin felt in Charing Cross and environs when the Empire State building went up.

In that regard the Mitchell is symbolic. It says that Glaswegians respect learning and scholarship and appreciate that education is the root to enlightenment, riches and upward mobility.

In short, if you want to get ahead stick your nose in a book. For a while I used to think everyone in Glasgow was an autodidact. Not for nothing, for example, did Jimmy Reid reply when asked which university he'd attended: "Govan Public Library."

Doubtless, after he'd exhausted everything Govan could offer, he made his way to the Mitchell. It is a road well travelled, and one well worth travelling.

The Mitchell's roots, like so much else that makes one's chest puff with pride, lie in the 19th century.

It owes its name to one Stephen Mitchell who, like so many others, made a mint out of tobacco. When he died in 1874 it was discovered he'd left £70,000, about £4.5 million in today's money, to "form the nucleus of a fund for the establishment of a large public library in Glasgow".

With an alacrity bordering on indecency, the city fathers accepted Mitchell's bequest, as well as his request that "books on all subjects not immoral shall be freely admitted to the library and no book shall be regarded as immoral which simply controverts present opinion on political or religious questions".

As libraries have a tendency to do, the Mitchell's stock of books grew rapaciously. Initially there were about 17,000 books; today there are millions. Two collections stand out, one to Robert Burns, the other to Glasgow, neither of which should be ignored by anyone "gathering material" on their subjects.

Within seven years of its founding, says Joe Fisher, the author of The Glasgow Encyclopedia who for 20 years ran the Glasgow Room in The Glasgow Encyclopedia, the Mitchell's book stock had quadrupled and the space in which to store it had run out.

Thus, in 1891 the first of the Mitchell's two flittings took place. From its original home on the corner of Ingram Street and Albion Street in the Merchant City it moved to Miller Street just a few blocks away. Twenty years later, Glasgow Corporation, flush with cash, opened a purpose-built library on the present site.

In the intervening years the Mitchell has had the swings and arrows of outrageous fortune thrown at it. That it has grown and adapted is testimony to the librarians who run it, the holders of the municipal purse strings who appreciate its worth, and the public who use it, sometimes daily, sometimes only when need arises, which it surely does.

All human life is here; as is on tap all human knowledge. You can read rare manuscripts, ancient newspapers, new magazines, numberless books and browse the internet, and so "gather material" without fear of ever having to do a proper job. A cafe, named not after Stephen Mitchell, but in homage to The Herald, is a more recent addition to the pleasures of the library, as is the Aye Write! festival which takes place in April and has The Herald as a media partner.

Both add to the Mitchell's enduring allure. Sit and soak in its atmosphere and you can almost believe that civilisation as we know it may yet have some mileage left.

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