Monday, April 12, 2021

The National Library of Wales and the Future of Cultural Heritage

[This was published in The Cambrian News, 25 February 2021, in response to government-funding of cultural heritage.] 

In its ‘Well-being’ legislation, the Welsh government affirmed a commitment to a connected Wales, an equal and resilient Wales, a society that ‘promotes and protects culture’. A major part of that effort must be through ongoing support of the National Library of Wales, until very recently, threatened by a year-on-year lack of funding and resourcing.


The Library has teetered perilously on the brink of inoperability after years of inadequate funding. In real terms, the Library’s funding has declined by a third in the last fifteen years and more jobs were under threat until this last week. At stake is the preservation of culture and community and the enhancement of Wales’ role on the international stage. And despite the provision of additional money announced last week, libraries and other cultural heritage institutions, are often the first institutions to be cut.


What does a library mean to its community?


A library matters for all kinds of reasons, often not that obvious. A couple of years ago, I visited a public library to look at medieval manuscripts it owns. After I’d been reading for a few hours, a woman came in and began talking loudly to the duty librarian, becoming louder and more distressed as the minutes went by. I was the only reader and could hear every word. The librarian handled the visitor with compassion and patience and eventually the agitated woman left with a bundle of advice about where she could get further help. I went over to the librarian simply to say how impressive I had found her in conversation with the visitor, how kind, how caring. ‘Oh’, she said, ‘that lady comes in every day, as she has done for years, to have the exact same conversation. She has nowhere else to go: other places just ignore her.”


A library is more than the books on its shelves; its value is also in its spaces, its caring for the things and the spirit of its people, its staff, and its openness to all. A library provides learning in abundance and access to local collections of historic materials, but it is also a space to read the newspaper, to apply for a job, to be secure when a home situation is risky. It welcomes its users, entertains visitors through exhibitions and readings, and, in social and academic contexts, provides intellectual sustenance for researchers of all levels, increasingly and importantly on a global scale.


For researchers, whether social historians or genealogists, the NLW's holdings are foundational, representing the country’s record, the telling of its existence, the heralding of its future. Documents, manuscripts, images, recordings, and art by, from and about the Welsh reveal the experience of Wales and its people, its language, its history, including its own colonization and colonial enterprises. From the art of Kyffin Williams to the fourteenth-century Book of Taliesin containing the earliest Welsh poetry from centuries prior, to archives of national cultural festivals—the Eisteddfodau; and from records of activism promoting the Welsh language (spoken fluently by more than 800,000 people), oral histories and film archives, the Library represents millennia of a people’s identity. It’s critically important to Wales’s collective memory and access to it to maintain fair government support.


I grew up by the sea in Aberystwyth, a small town guarded by the Pen Dinas iron age hillfort and the Cambrian Mountains, last stop at the western end of the Wales line from London. You don’t pass by Aberystwyth. You either live there or you journey there with determination—to holiday, to shop, to watch a film, to attend a hospital appointment. For 149 years, students and scholars have studied at the university whose original building is a turreted neo-Gothic delight, a Grade I masterpiece partly funded by public donation: a place of learning for the people of Wales. The university’s foundation raised the profile of west Wales so much that a campaign to create a National Library, begun in 1906, was inspired to choose Aberystwyth as the location partly because of the academic richness of the town. It was a decision that caused dissent among those whose preference would have been Cardiff—Wales’s capital city. 


National Library of Wales.jpg
The National Library of Wales


From 1907, tens of thousands of ordinary Welsh people (if there is such a thing) got behind Aberystwyth’s cause to host the Library, donating money through subscriptions to fund the building, and the foundation stone of the magnificent classically-inspired library was laid 110 years ago. Since then, the imposing institution has gazed out to sea, watched over the town, supported and encouraged scholarship on its renowned collections, while catering for local citizens, who visit in large numbers to see their artists’ work, hear lectures, read books in their language, and share Welshcakes and coffee in the Caffi Pen Dinas.


Successive periods of disinvestment in the last dozen years have not permitted the NLW to flourish in the ways it clearly could. But there is so much to be grateful for, especially as a researcher who lives miles away, or who cannot get to the Library in a period of restricted travel. The superb programme of digitization to make has made holdings freely accessible worldwide and because of efforts to engage digitally and materially in regional branches, the Library has honoured the commitment shown by the people of Wales themselves, who dug deep into their pockets to subscribe to the its original success.


The people’s voices must be heard. And in promises made as recently as four years ago, the Welsh Government passed the ‘Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015’ (Deddf Llesiant Cenedlaethau'r Dyfodol (Cymru) 2015). Think about this Act, which formed seven objectives to create a better life for Wales by enhancing prosperity, resilience, good health, equality, communal cohesion, vibrant culture and Welsh language, and global responsibility.


When it looked like the Welsh Assembly would fail, in 2021, to consider fair funding for the Library, thousands of citizens protested in a Petition? Equality of opportunity means having library services at the national level and good access to the building and its resources. To nurture a vibrant Welsh culture and thriving language, the Assembly must support the objects housed in the National Library whose interpretation constitute those very things, but also the staff who work to make the Library function. There is no more important cultural commitment than to protect the legacy of a country, its heritage and the material artefacts that help citizens feel they belong, that their voices are heard and represented.


To know where a country is going, you must know where it has come from. The National Library provides access to the past in the present allowing a clear sense of direction for the future of Wales. It deserves the full support of its country’s government: the people must continue be heard.

View of Aberystwyth from the National Library


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