The National Library of Wales: Guardian of a Nation's Heritage

By Jenkins, Gwyn | Contemporary Review, September 1998 | Go to article overview

The National Library of Wales: Guardian of a Nation's Heritage


Jenkins, Gwyn, Contemporary Review


Countries tend to set up institutions to proclaim their nationhood, and this is true even of those nations which exist within a larger state. Next summer the National Assembly for Wales will meet for the first time, following elections to be held in May. In many ways the establishment of this important new institution will be the culmination of a gradual movement, which began in the nineteenth century, towards the recognition of Wales as a nation. Whereas the National Assembly will provide a much-needed democratic expression of Welsh nationhood, the nation's cultural heritage will continue to be guarded by a much older institution, Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cyrnru, the National Library of Wales, which first opened its doors nearly ninety years ago.

The establishment of the National Library was a direct consequence of the flowering of a Welsh national consciousness which had manifested itself during the second half of the nineteenth century. This had led, in 1872, to the foundation at Aberystwyth of the first college of what was to become, in 1893, part of a federal University of Wales. At the same time there were moves to establish cultural institutions: a museum to exhibit archaeological artefacts discovered in Wales, a record office to keep the manuscripts and historical archives of the nation, as well as a national library to hold Welsh books, both ancient and modern.

There was little consensus as to how such institutions should be set up and where they should be located and in any case efforts by Welsh MPs to claim a share of the annual museum grants distributed by the government between institutions in England, Scotland and Ireland were rebuffed on the grounds that the British Museum, it was said, served both England and Wales. Furthermore there was a clear presumption by the government that Wales was not a nation, despite its separate language and distinctive culture. However, Wales was fortunate in possessing a number of talented and committed Members of Parliament during the 1890s and they were able to enlighten the government on its gross misconception on this point.

During the early years of the new century, the argument that Wales should have its own national cultural institutions was won and a committee was set up by the Privy Council to examine claims for the establishment of a national museum and a national library. Cardiff, though not yet the designated capital of Wales, made strong representations that both institutions should be sited there but Aberystwyth, a much smaller seaside town in west Wales, also made a convincing claim for the library. Its central location made it a convenient site for both north and south, land and subscriptions had already been assured and the Welsh library at the University would provide a firm foundation for a genuine national library. Crucially the influence of one man, Sir John Williams, once described as 'the father of the Library', was to prove decisive.

During the course of a brilliant career in medicine in London, Sir John, the son of a Carmarthenshire Congregationalist minister, had become Queen Victoria's physician, but he was also well-known for his ever-expanding private collection of Welsh books and manuscripts. He became the champion of the Aberystwyth cause, promising to donate his magnificent collection to the national library were it to be located in the town. In the event, compromise reigned. The national museum was awarded to Cardiff and the national library to Aberystwyth and Royal Charters were granted to both institutions in 1907.

The new National Library of Wales opened its doors for the first time on New Year's Day 1909 in a temporary home while a majestic neo-classical building of Cornish granite and Portland stone was erected in stages on a spectacular site overlooking Aberystwyth. The laying of the first foundation stone was carried out by King George V and Queen Mary in 1911, the occasion being marked by a twenty-one gun salute from an eight warship flotilla in Cardigan Bay. …

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