Aberystywth v Cardiff - the battle for the National Library of Wales

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The National Library of Wales is one of the country's great institutions. It sits high on Penglais Hill in Aberystwyth, overlooking both the town and Cardigan Bay.

The library sits high on Penglais Hill (Photo: National Library of Wales)

The library holds over four million printed volumes as well as paintings, magazines and newspapers but the vast majority of people who use the facility remain blithely unaware of the furore surrounding its establishment.

The National Library (Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru in Welsh) is a relatively modern creation but as early as 1873 Welsh material of value and interest - objects as well as books - was being collected together and stored in the University College, Aberystwyth.

Unfortunately there was a similar process already taking place in the Cardiff area.

Choosing a home

A single permanent home was obviously needed to store both artefacts and manuscripts. When a government committee was set up in 1905 to decide on the location for such a a depositary there began a bitter and often virulent battle between the two university towns.

There were debates and discussions, heated letters in the press. Articles and cartoons appeared in the Western Mail claiming that Aberystwyth was too far away from the centre of educational and social life in Wales.

It was a poor argument, however, as in those days - unlike today - there were excellent railway links between Aberystwyth and most parts of Britain. And with a seat of learning already existing on the doorstep, the town could hardly be considered as the back of beyond - although many people claimed that it was!

Heated arguments

"It was all pretty heated," says Sion Jobbins of the National Library. "Both sides had their supporters and both sides fought to get their own way. Inevitably, I suppose, what was eventually agreed on was a good old fashioned compromise.

"University education in the country was already working on a 'federated' concept and, following in the footsteps of this idea, it was decided to split the collections."

Cardiff would become the home of the National Museum of Wales, while Aberystwyth would house the National Library, effectively the legal deposit library for the country.

Obviously there were, and would continue to be, overlaps with both institutions holding material that could easily have been located elsewhere but the National Library was established by royal charter on 19 March 1907.

The influence of Sir John Williams

There had been all sorts of intrigue going on while the decision was being made. One of the factors influencing that decision was the promised gift from Sir John Williams, private physician to Queen Victoria.

An avid book collector, he indicated that he would be prepared to present his collection to the library, on the condition that it was located in Aberystwyth. He also donated money, somewhere in the region of £20,000, to the enterprise.

When land just off Penglais Hill was given by Lord Rendle, the MP for Montgomeryshire, the Library had found a formal site. A competition was held to find the best design and the winner, Sidney Greenslade, was ordered to set things in motion.

The foundation stone was laid on 25 July 1911, and slowly but surely the building took shape. The first librarian was John Ballinger, a man who held his post from 1909 until 1930. The library itself did not formally open until 1916.

Priceless collection of manuscripts

"The library holds some precious and priceless books," says Sion Jobbins. "For example, we have a copy of the first translation of the Bible into Welsh and of the Black Book of Carmarthen, the earliest surviving manuscript written entirely in Welsh.

"We have copies of magazines and newspapers from all over Britain, diaries, letters, everything you would expect a national library to hold".

The National Library is charged with offering services in English as well as Welsh and, therefore, holds thousands of English language publication, both old and modern. It even has a manuscript copy of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. And it also has thousands of paintings, many of which can be seen on the library website.

Despite being granted a new royal charter in 2006, debate still sometimes erupts about the location of the National Library and there are many who would like to see it moved to Cardiff.

Yet there is something rather special about the idea of 'federated' institutions - and, after all, it would not do to have every Welsh cultural establishment set in the southern part of the country.

If you are thinking of visiting the National Library of Wales, take a look at their website which has the opening times, visiting details and information on becoming a reader as well information on the collections and exhibitions that can be found at the library.

The National Library for Wales is also on Twitter.

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