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King James Library - A Short History

King James Library interactive tour

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James VI PortraitThe King James Library was built on the site of the medieval College of St John - the place where teaching began in St Andrews and a fragment of which was incorporated into the present structure. The building was intended to house books bequeathed by Mary Queen of Scots for the founding of a library, together with the University's existing collections.

1612 King James VI & I (left) promised sufficient finance to enable work on the library to start, however funding problems were to mean that construction was not completed until 1643. The building was to comprise a lower hall, which was used as a teaching room, together with the upper hall, which was to accommodate the books. To these, James added some collections of volumes (known as the 'foundation gift').

Parliament Hall in 17th Century 1645-6 Due to an outbreak of plague in Edinburgh, the Scottish Parliament met in the lower hall of the library. Thereafter the room became known as Parliament Hall. It is still used as a debating chamber by the University Debating Society. The picture to the right is an artist's impression of what the hall looked like in the 17th century. The professor sat in the wooden chair in the centre of the picture (which is still in the University's possession), while the students sat on the benches to the sides. For examinations, students were required to stand on a black granite block (next to the professor's chair) and be examined orally (in Latin) in front of the rest of the class.

Astronmer Gregory in King James' Library 1668-74 Mathematician/astronomer and inventor of the first practical reflecting telescope, James Gregory had his workshop in the upper hall (the King James Library). He had a wooden line set into the floor to delineate the meridian line for use in his observations. He used this in conjunction with a metal sight fixed outside one of the windows, which he lined up with a post on the horizon exactly due south of the library. The illustration to the left shows Gregory at work in the library, with the meridian line clearly visible. Little-known in his day, Gregory's work has been re-evaluated recently and is now thought to be on a par with that of his contemporary, Sir Isaac Newton.

1765-7 As the library was at the time a copyright deposit library, pressure of space meant that it became necessary to extend the King James Library by raising the walls and inserting a gallery. Dr Johnson admired the finished room as an 'elegant and luminous' chamber on a visit described in his `A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland' in 1773. John Wesley also visited in 1776 and described St Mary's College as having a handsome library.

Interior of King James' Library 1881 The library was used as the setting for a short story, 'The Library Window' by the well-known Scottish author Margaret Oliphant.

1977 Due to continued problems accommodating the holdings, the building was further extended several times. Eventually the stock outgrew the site and a new University Library building was opened on North Street in 1977. The King James Library then became a dedicated Divinity library.

Today the collections within both the King James Library and the Main Library are catalogued within the University's integrated, online system, SAULCAT. Staff at the King James Library including Lynda Kinloch (Assistant Librarian) are available to assist students in making the fullest possible use of these significant scholarly resources.


Colin Bovaird & Linda Kinloch

Contact details

St Mary's College
The School of Divinity
University of St Andrews
South Street
St Andrews
Fife KY16 9JU
Scotland, United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)1334 462850
Fax: +44 (0)1334 462852

Opening times

St Mary's College Library
St Mary's College
South Street

Tel: 01334 462855


Monday - Friday
09:00 - 17:15


Monday - Friday
May be subject to change
10:00 - 14:00

See also