The National Library of Wales, in the town of Aberystwyth, is one of the great libraries of the world. It’s home to more than six million books, thousands of important artworks, and countless archival documents, creating a mammoth bank of information that forms the collective memory of our nation.
Not only is it a beloved asset for those with an interest in Welsh history, but, with its thought-provoking exhibitions, beautiful architecture, and inviting on-site cafe, it is also a wonderful attraction in its own right – providing the perfect foreword to any Welsh adventure.
To begin at the beginning
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a growing anxiety in Wales over a lack of a major venue to store and display important Welsh artefacts, meaning significant Welsh texts and artworks were at risk of being separated and sold off to collectors and museums located outside of the country.
As a solution to this issue, it was decided in the late-19th century that Wales should build a national library and museum, keeping the country’s treasures within its borders to ensure they could be enjoyed by the Welsh public.
Aberystwyth vs Cardiff
When it came to choosing the location for these new buildings a fierce contest broke out between Cardiff, which had recently acquired city status and was on its way to becoming the capital city of Wales, and the town of Aberystwyth, home to the country’s oldest university college.
Due to the fact that the university had already begun working on a collection of important Welsh texts, as well as a local member of the gentry having offered to donate the land needed for the building, Aberystwyth was ultimately selected as the home of the new library, with the National Museum of Wales going to Cardiff.
The library was officially established by royal charter in 1907, and the foundation stone for the large, purpose-built venue was laid by King George V in 1911. Following a major construction project, funded in part by donations from over 100,000 ordinary Welshmen and women, the library opened its doors to the public at its current home on Penglais hill in 1916.
A place of refuge
The library took on an important role during the second world war when it was deemed a suitable safe haven to store some of the UK’s greatest artistic treasures, with the town’s rural location making it an unlikely target for bombing raids.
Hundreds of important historical items from esteemed establishments such as the British Museum, the Ashmolean Museum (the UK’s first public museum) and Corpus Christi College in Cambridge were packed up and sent to the library for their protection.
Works included paintings by the Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo, drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci and an original version of the 1215 Magna Carta document (the first to declare the monarchy was not above the law), all of which were stored in a specially-built, cave-like tunnel next to the library – the exterior entrance to which is still visible to visitors.
The modern library
As the national legal deposit of Wales, today the library has the right to claim a copy of any book, map, magazine or newspaper published in Britain and Ireland. As a result, the building now houses over six million texts, as well as many thousands of maps, manuscripts and artworks, plus hundreds of hours of archival video footage and sound recordings.
Visitors can request material from the library’s collection online and then consult it in the dedicated Reading Room, which is open Monday to Saturday and free to visit (following online registration). The spacious, stately, high-ceilinged space contains a number of desks spread around a central information desk, and makes for an atmospheric place to study or work.
Other attractions at the library include a gallery and exhibition rooms, one of which displays a revolving collection of some of the library’s most treasured items. There’s also the Pen Dinas Café, serving soups, sandwiches and homemade cakes, a library shop, and a small play area for children on site.
Additionally, the library regularly hosts events, from discussions on Dylan Thomas to concerts by male voice choirs. These are typically held in the on-site, 100-seat auditorium.
Gems of the collection
There are a number of items classified as national treasures amidst the huge wealth of material the library has accumulated over the last century, many of which are regularly displayed in the Hengwrt exhibition room.
Dating back to the 16th century, Yny lhyvyr hwnn, thought to be the first book to be printed in Welsh, is certainly one. As is The 'Hengwrt Chaucer', a manuscript of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, the best-known English poet of the Middle Ages. The manuscript was inducted by UNESCO into its UK Memory of the World Register, which safeguards artefacts the organisation considers key to British cultural heritage.
As you might expect, the library also houses a number of artefacts that are entwined with the history of Wales. These include the original words and score to Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, the national anthem of Wales, hand-drawn sketches by Dylan Thomas of the fictional town that serves as the setting for arguably his most famous work, Under Milk Wood, and two watercolours of Welsh landscapes by celebrated British painter J M W Turner.
A helping hand in family history research
One of the things that draws many visitors to the library is its role as the primary repository for family history research in Wales, with a vast selection of archives providing a crucial resource for anyone interested in tracking down long-lost Welsh relatives.
The library holds a huge wealth of birth, death and marriage registers, crime records, census documents and a collection of historical maps all under one roof, which visitors can peruse at their leisure, with knowledgeable staff on hand to assist.
The library also houses the new broadcast archive, a database of more than half a million clips from the history of Welsh television and radio, which is the first of its kind in the UK.
The library has worked hard to ensure it is a venue accessible to all, with ramps, lifts, wheelchair hire services and accessible toilets. As such, all public areas of the venue can now be accessed by wheelchair.
Additionally, text reading and magnification services can be used on the machines where digital versions of the library’s collection can be found, and information leaflets are available in big print and audio text versions.
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