Stephen O’Rourke QC: The importance of the Advocates Library



Stephen O’Rourke QC

The Advocates Library is at the heart of Scotland’s legal system and the heart of an advocate’s daily practice. It has played a central role in the life of the nation since it was founded in 1682 by the then Lord Advocate Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh, who had become Dean of the Faculty of Advocates that same year.

Though maligned as ‘bloody Mackenzie’, Sir George was a cultivated and learned man who, come the Glorious Revolution of 1688, found himself on the wrong side of history. When he retired from office the following year he left behind the Oratio Inauguralis, a speech in Latin beautifully setting out his ambitious vision for the Library on the occasion of its formal inauguration on 15 March 1689.

A few years later, the Copyright Act of 1710 gave the Keeper of the Library the right to every book published in the British Isles. As a result, the Advocates Library quickly became Scotland’s national library, and two of Scotland’s greatest philosophers, David Hume and Adam Ferguson, held the position of Keeper of the Library in the 1750s.

The Library as it stands today was constructed in 1830 and is a Category A listed building designed by William Playfair. Founded as a library for scholars, it established itself as one of the greatest libraries of Europe. It became, in the words of Thomas Carlyle, “incomparably the best of all the libraries we have in Scotland” and its existence, as Lord Hope has written, “played a major part in serving the survival of Scots Law as a separate legal system”.

By 1925, the Faculty’s collection was vast and an endowment by Alexander Grant (of McVitie’s biscuits fame) aided the construction of a new National Library of Scotland. The Faculty then gifted to the nation its collection of 750,000 books, pamphlets, manuscripts, maps and sheet music, while retaining curatorship of the legal collection. Today, in addition to the Library itself, the Faculty maintains smaller libraries within the High Courts in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and maintains responsibility for Sir Walter Scott’s unique collection at Abbotsford – a point of special significance in 2021, the 250th anniversary of Sir Walter’s birth.

The resources of the Library are important because Scotland’s judges, as they work to shape and interpret the law, rely upon counsel and their library-based learning. This has created a strong legal community over centuries, working professionally to develop and maintain Scotland’s justice system. Alongside advocates, this includes solicitor advocates, who similarly draw upon the resources of the Signet Library, the Library of Solicitors in the Supreme Courts, the Royal Faculty of Procurators Library in Glasgow and the Society of Advocates Library in Aberdeen.

The justice community’s strength rests upon the professional interaction of judges, court officials, advocates, solicitor advocates and solicitors, as well as the clients and the witnesses. Our libraries and courts are the crossroads of this community, where we meet to research, discuss, and deliver justice one case at a time. These professional interactions, the cross-awareness of other cases (present, past and future), build something unique: a well-informed, efficient and engaged legal community. Sometimes referred to as ‘social capital’, this is admittedly something that does not transfer easily onto a balance sheet. And yet it is vital.

Research shows social capital is built most effectively through real-time connections, those formal and informal discussions between people with shared professional interests and expertise. It is of immeasurable benefit in workplaces, granting access to networks of knowledge, promoting information transfer and enabling the development of creative solutions to complex issues.

Social capital through real-time connections is also vital to begin and develop a career in the justice system. Those of us already established know how much we learned by watching, listening, discussing and researching cases. Courtrooms and libraries are at the heart of those formative and essential experiences.

And so with pandemic restrictions gradually lifting, two key questions come to mind in ever-sharper focus. What are our libraries for? What are courtrooms for?

Perhaps these questions need to be considered together. Perhaps they are one question: but however it is approached, Scotland is best served by a vibrant, supportive and learned justice community, accessible to every person with the ability and the will to contribute.

Stephen O’Rourke QC is the Keeper of the Advocates Library. This article first appeared in The Scotsman.