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2 minutes to read Posted on Tuesday September 4, 2018

Updated on Monday November 6, 2023

portrait of Anette Hagan

Anette Hagan

Rare Books Curator , National Library of Scotland

portrait of Emily D’Alterio

Emily D’Alterio

Former Editorial & PR Officer , Europeana Foundation

The Rise of Literacy: contemporary relevance of libraries and literacy

We spoke to Dr Anette Hagan, Rare Books Curator (for early printed collections to 1700) from the National Library of Scotland about what makes libraries still relevant in a contemporary society, their value for the community, and why literacy is still important today.

The lady of the lake. | Walter Scott; Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect. | Robert Burns; Gaelic names of plants (Scottish and Irish)| John Cameron (musician), 1871;1786;1883, The National Library of Scotland, United Kingdom, CC BY; Public Domain
The lady of the lake. | Walter Scott; Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect. | Robert Burns; Gaelic names of plants (Scottish and Irish)| John Cameron (musician)
The National Library of Scotland
United Kingdom

The Rise of Literacy project, running from September 2017 to February 2019, aims to select, digitise and ingest new content such as manuscripts, literature and newspapers to Europeana as well as curate browse entry points and exhibitions showcasing cultural treasures relating to the theme. The National Library of Scotland became involved in the project to share their digitised material on the Europeana platform to increase visibility and further to enable access for a general readership through dedicated editorial contributions.

Anette says, 'The chance to work with colleagues across Europe on interpreting material in all our collections that have contributed to the rise of literacy, to co-author blogs across two or three nations, and to put together a pan-European picture, is too good to pass up!´

We spoke to her about her involvement in the project, the social importance of libraries and literacy, and how both have evolved with the digital. 

What is the inherent value of libraries for communities?

Libraries are a place which people can visit without paying entrance fees, where they can borrow books, music and other material for free, where they can sit in a warm, dry place and access the internet, fill in forms online or read newspapers and magazines. And where people of all ages from all walks of life can get help for nothing from qualified people: help with their academic or family history research, advice about how to search online, or suggestions where best to look for particular information.

How have libraries changed with the shift towards digital information sharing?

The increased availability appears to have made physical visits to libraries less important. The National Library of Scotland has seen a decline in users of the General Reading Room, where material printed after 1900 is consulted.

Conversely, though, the digitisation of rare books and manuscripts has resulted in an increased awareness of the special collections we hold and has actually attracted new readers who wish to consult the original material. The study of the book as an object rather, than as a carrier of information, is more popular than ever, and digital access is not sufficient to satisfy the needs of students of book history who are interested, for instance, in all extant copies of a particular work, or in recreating a dispersed library collection. Once such a library has been reconstructed, of course, it can be digitally re-assembled even though the physical items remain dispersed across the world.

What initiatives or projects is the National Library of Scotland undertaking to evolve with the digital?

In our strategy document for 2015-2020, “The Way Forward”, we state that by 2025, the centenary of the National Library of Scotland, we will have one-third of our collections in digital format. Apart from this mass digitisation programme, we also carry out boutique digitisation, as for instance the scanning of a collection of 2,200 broadsides for the Europeana Rise of Literacy Project.

National Library of Scotland, Dr. Anette Hagan, CC BY-SA
The National Library of Scotland
Dr. Anette Hagan
National Library of Scotland
National Library of Scotland, Dr. Anette Hagan, CC BY-SA

What is the importance of projects like the Rise of Literacy?   

I feel its true importance lies in two things: its pan-European approach and the fact that Europeana is publishing images of text along with curatorial interpretation. I know about TEL, and that Rise of Literacy is not the only project that involves putting up text on Europeana. The difference is the access through editorials. Not only is Europeana aggregating thousands of pages of text both in manuscript and printed form in at least 12 languages (three for Scotland alone!), but it gives the general public a chance to find out about some of the material through dedicated blogs written by partners who are knowledgeable about their collections and keen to share their insights and observations about interesting aspects of their collections. The exhibitions tell the story of literacy from the pan-European perspective and bring together examples from all partners.

Find out more on the Rise of Literacy Project. Or read any of the books into the main image (with a particularly beautiful 1871 copy of The Lady in the Lake) on Europeana Collections.