What is a Librarian? James Hamilton on the Collector Librarian of The Signet Library, David Laing.

On 27th of October, in a session organised by the Centre for the History of the Book, James Hamilton, the Research Principal of the WS Society, introduced David Laing and his history as the Principal Librarian of the Signet Library. With a strong background in the book trade and bibliography, Laing was already a leading figure in Edinburgh’s intellectual elite as a member of the Bannatyne Club and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. After his attempt, and subsequent failure, to become Librarian to the Faculty of Advocates, Laing accepted a role as the Principal Librarian of the Signet Library, employed by the Society of Writers of the Signet. His appointment set a precedent in the Society history – never before had a non-lawyer been employed to manage their collections. It would set Laing on the collision course that followed and open the door towards the controversy and conflicts that followed him in his later years. His career and its impact on the Signet Library opens up a lot of questions regarding the past, present and future role of the librarian and how it could affect the way we, as scholars of materiality, “read” a library and its collections.

It is important to note the circumstances and environment in which Laing took the post on, as this would speak volumes about the collection he inherited from his predecessor, Macvey Napier. The Signet Library had initially been committed to collecting legal papers, however in the late 18th century the Deputy Keeper of the Signet, John Davidson of Haltree decided on an expansion of the collection to include holdings from all disciplines. Macvey Napier entered the picture as a young Writer to the Signet and then expanded the collection from 2,000 books to twenty times its size. After a long career, in 1834 Macvey Napier took a senior legal post – and the Society welcomed David Laing into the role of librarian.

What expectations Laing had had before taking up the role, we don’t know. He had tried and failed in 1820 to gain the post of Librarian to the Faculty of Advocates and we can only speculate about how that affected his future career and his decision to take up the post. As Hamilton pointed out, stepping into the role, Laing found himself with someone else’s collection and limited ability of putting his own mark on the library’s history.

The early 19th century wasn’t overly detailed in its definition of the librarian’s role, which is why we need to consider both the Society’s definition of the Signet Librarian and Laing’s own view (as far as we know it). The Signet Librarian was, more or less, a subordinate of the Curators – the responsibilities of the role were mainly administrative, relating to bookkeeping, bookbinding, and cataloguing. It’s difficult to know how Laing perceived this in his early years and as he was appointed – as Hamilton pointed out, he does not mention the Signet Library at all in his autobiographical works – but judging by his early bibliographical and bookselling career, he would not accept that subordination easily. Rather, as Hamilton put it, he would undertake the position as a sinecure. This rift in perception is substantial and was the underlying reason between the later confrontations between the WS Society and Laing.

We have to remember that Laing was already very active in editing, publishing, book collecting and bibliography before taking the post. When taking the role, he pointedly refused to stop these activities – and that led to several accusations that he was neglecting his work for the collections. It leads to several other conflict points with the Society throughout Laing’s career, including the cataloguing of the collections, Laing’s own efficiency and general attitude towards the role. From this, we can infer that Laing was very much a man with his own ideas about what the library’s function should be and how its collections should be handled, and he refused (as much as he could) to budge under the influence of The Curators. His own interests have also affected the collections of the library as we know them – it’s unknown how many back-door deals Laing conducted over his career. Therefore, how can we now “read” the Signet Library, in light of what Laing has brought into it? Is it still the carefully curated gathering of legal papers and a repository of collected knowledge that Napier had turned it into, or has Laing tried to bring outside publications – not just books, but also manuscripts and all kinds of ephemera – that don’t necessarily reflect the Society’s interests?

This sends us all the way back to Laing’s appointment – just like he had entered the Society as an outsider, he was trying to bring his “outsider” literature into the Library. After his death, it was a struggle to separate the books and papers of his own collection from the Library’s holdings. Furthermore, Laing’s collection was auctioned away in London, and – as Hamilton himself pointed out – it’s a very real possibility that some of the Signet Library holdings were auctioned away as well. This shows how, even posthumously, Laing’s identity as a book collector and that as a librarian was reconciled in a way that countered the Society’s expectations of their Principal Librarian.

Laing’s contribution to the Signet Library found appreciation through the final years of his life and he left a legacy as one of the best remembered Signet Librarians, even if not necessarily for his work as a Librarian. His rejection of the Society and the Curators’ view of the librarian did not do him any favours throughout his career. It did however help the building and the collection itself “learn” from Laing’s extracurricular practices, perhaps in ways that the current members of the Society are still yet to discover.


Report by Toni Velikova, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture, University of Edinburgh.

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