Enhancing access and engagement

New Enlightenment

The Signet Library’s importance goes beyond celebrated architecture to its central role in the development and dissemination of knowledge and ideas since its construction during Edinburgh’s Golden Age of classical urban development. Lawyers’ libraries were at the heart of Scottish Enlightenment thinking, writing and debate.

Robert Reid’s neo-classical shell was completed in 1812 and the interiors of the upper and lower libraries were designed by William Stark. After Stark’s death in 1813, William Henry Playfair completed the interior. When the Faculty of Advocates sold the upper library to the WS Society (already owners of the lower library) in 1826, the two levels were connected by an imperial staircase designed by William Burn. The library still uses its original furniture, made by William Trotter. In 1900, the West Wing was added, designed in Edwardian Palladian style by Sidney Mitchell.

The WS Society’s New Enlightenment strategy seeks to reprise the spirit in which the building was first conceived by engaging new and diverse audiences with Enlightenment heritage and its continuing relevance in the 21st century. Underpinning this approach is a mission to advance education about the central role of the law and legal system in a free and democratic society.


The delivery of this strategy involves essential works of conservation, repair and improvement to the building, including step-free access to all its principal spaces. Key components are:

— Comprehensive conservation works to the external envelope.

— Transformational works to the lower ground floor to create a visitor experience, three educational rooms and curated archive displays.

— Installing an east lift in the main entrance to the first floor, and a west lift to the lower ground floor.

— Bringing the content and stories of the Signet Library to life through a comprehensive interpretation fit out.

— Installing fire suppression sprinkler systems to protect heritage.

— The capital cost of the entire project is estimated at £4,500,000 based on outline specifications and costings. The folders on display provide more detail of the conservation and interpretation works.