We Love Gladstone’s Library (Part Two)

I have been back at St. Deiniol’s all week.  I’ve been tired.  On Sunday morning a very nice woman I was sitting with at breakfast suggested I perhaps needed “some nourishment” and as Sunday was gorgeous weather I thus headed off further into Wales to find a point on my road atlas where the A road intersected with Offa’s Dyke Path.  I first got waylaid by Ruthin Craft Centre (lovely shop full of beautifully crafted things) and eventually found the path onto the Clwydian Hills.  It was just what I needed and the views were stunning.

Back in the Library, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and I have been making slow progress.  Today I ditched my Netbook completely and took to writing longhand.  I haven’t done that for years … and I actually wrote lots.  There’s some kind of moral/lesson in there to someone who is writing a blog on e-learning.  I do frequently find myself knowing that just because the technology exists, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the job is going to get done any more effectively/quicker.  Having said that, I’ve also bought myself a nifty digital camera and this evening I’ve been trying out a few photos.

Sophia and slate benches

Sophia and slate benches

To the right is a modern statue of Sophia (wisdom) set amidst four beautiful slate stone benches.  This is the view out the back of Gladstone’s Library complex.  For my tastes the statue is too representational in a way that doesn’t quite work in the twenty-first century and the benches, with their rough hewn edges and carved words in English and Welsh at either end – Love, Truth, Justice and Peace - somehow work much better.  Having said that I’m quite glad Sophia is there, emerging from the Tree of Knowledge as she is and looking towards the Library, although why she needs to be semi naked to do this is a little bit beyond me…

At any given time there will be an interesting range of people here at the Library.  Due to its history as a theological training college it is a popular stopping/resting point for clergy, and people seem to travel from far afield to be here. Every week I’ve been staying there has been at least one person from the USA.  I’ve met a few academics, various retired people looking for a bit of space to work on writing projects, and generally a pleasant and interesting variety of folk.

It’s the kind of place that is just somehow … conducive.  Conducive to what depends on why you are here.  Watching over it all is a statue of William Gladstone himself (apparently intended for Dublin, but by the time the statue was finished the political situation meant it was no longer welcome).  Probably the largest collection in the world of Gladstone-related images and memorabilia adorn the public ground floor corridors, and of course Gladstone’s own collection of books is dispersed amongst twentieth- and twenty-first-century additions, sometimes containing his annotations.

We love Gladstone’s Library (Part One)

I have been spending a fair amount of the past few weeks at Gladstone’s Library (formerly known as St. Deiniol’s), Hawarden, Flintshire, just across the north Wales border.  It’s a real discovery.  I think I first heard of it several years ago via the British Association of Victorian Studies, but it is only now I’ve actually got here. 

Gladstone's Library, Hawarden.

Four-times Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone was an avid collector of books.  His country residence was the splendid (new) Hawarden Castle, which still has grounds partially open to the public today, five minutes away from the Library’s site.  Gladstone wished to make his books available to others and had established a ‘Tin Tabernacle’ edifice to house some of his books late in his life.  After his death in 1898 he left a legacy specifically to establish a more permanent residential library.  This opened in 1902.

As Gladstone’s Library says on its website homepage, it is “a residential library and meeting place dedicated to dialogue, debate and learning for open-minded individuals and groups who are looking to explore pressing questions and to pursue study and research in an age of distraction and easy solutions”. 

The library itself is small (in one sense) but perfectly formed, and specialises in theology and Victorian studies.  It is actually the most important research library in Wales outside of the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, with over 250,000 volumes.  As well as books the library involves a lot of wood (see photo), and narrow circling staircases that creak as you walk up them.  

Inside Gladstone's Library

In many ways part of the Library’s charm is that it still manages to be relatively free of the increasingly technology-rich paraphernalia that pervades modern libraries.  There is of course a computerised catalogue of the stock (with Gladstone’s own personal library mixed in on the shelves) but books are ‘taken out’ by filling in a slip with the book’s details on and inserting one copy into the space on the shelf where your book was.  Nice.   If you are resident at the Library you can colonise an upstairs gallery desk of your own.  Whilst this is obviously not the British Library the holdings in its specialist areas strike me as pretty good — the Victorian literature sections are serving me quite well, and one of the attractions for Victorian Studies scholars is that there are actually nineteenth-century books in the mix as well.  I stumbled across a first edition of Augusta Webster’s volume of poems Portraits (1870) which I had never seen before, and I’ve also been able to browse Alfred Miles’s multi-volume The Poets and Poetry of the Century (1891-97), which I am forever reading about in articles on Victorian poetry but had also never actually seen.   In short, if you have a writing project to progress or finish, or want some quiet space for reflection, then St. Deiniol’s is a great place to come.  Part Two of my reflections on being here to follow…