Art and the Playfair Library

Speaking to Absent Volumes

For 140 years the Playfair Library, in Old College, was the home of the University’s Library collections, and the heart of study and learning in Edinburgh. The books were moved to the present library in George Square in 1967, but the room remains as one of the most distinctive elements of the University’s architectural history. The space and the collections it once held form the background for this project.

Working in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections (CRC) in 2020, third year School of Art students from Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) were asked to make artists’ books inspired by, or drawing references from, the volumes that once graced the shelves of the library.

The books in the Playfair Library were arranged by a system based on the physical arrangement of the bookcases. Full records of this are preserved, allowing the books to re-occupy the space in the imagination, and for old relationships and juxtapositions between volumes to be explored.

The students were challenged to work with the old catalogues and shelflists to select books which speak to their own individual interests, and to make a contemporary response in the form of an artist’s book. Their work is diverse in subject, in method and format; it is seen here alongside a selection of the original material they worked with illustrating their engagement with this important, unique historical collection. 

Project overview

In this short video Jane and Elizabeth introduce themselves and explain the origins of the project. Providing a history of the Playfair Library and an overview of how the student artists engaged with the original books, responding to the brief in their own individual ways.

Jane Hyslop

Jane Hyslop

Lecturer, Art and Illustration, Schools of Art and Design
Edinburgh College of Art

Elizabeth Lawrence

Elizabeth Lawrence

Rare Books Librarian
Centre for Research Collections

Interactive map

Select the markers on this Playfair Library floor plan below for more details.

Project list

There are fifteen different student projects, each one unique.

Student videos

Jane and Elizabeth discuss five of the student projects in greater detail. These can be viewed on their individual pages or this single playlist.

Video playlist (Media Hopper Create)
Video playlist (YouTube)