Is the future of the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth under threat? If it is, Esyllt Sears has a plan to save it.
As an Aberystwyth native and daughter to a former librarian, I felt compelled to acknowledge reports of potential job losses at the National Library of Wales. That’s right, bitches, I’m writing about libraries now. Growing up in Aberystwyth, the library was a looming presence. Situated on top of Penglais Hill, looking down on the town, it is a key part of the landscape. Aberystwyth without the library would be like Hollywood without the massive big sign; just as sexy but a little less distinguishable.
I have a lot of love for it, as a building and an institution. Having said that, apart from compulsory school trips, the only other time I remember being inside was when an ex of mine was studying at the university. Being in the throes of our honeymoon period, I went to sit with him as he did research work and I tested the sourcing skills of the library staff by requesting books at random. I learnt a lot about chinchillas that day.
The truth is, it has always felt like part of the university and a place for academics rather than the Welsh public. I would never think to go up there for a coffee or to browse; however, I definitely would do that at the National Museum in Cardiff and even at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre, which is also situated on the outskirts of town. The location is not the issue.
It’s very rare for towns and cities outside of Cardiff to house anything of national significance. I still remember when our capital city took the Ian Rush football tournament and the National Film Festival from us. But the Library is one thing they haven’t been able to get their hands on (even though there was a bitter fight for its location when established). So, my initial reaction whenever the future of the National Library is in doubt, is to assume that it’s because of its location to the north of Llanishen.
Reports in the last week of potential job losses have thrown into doubt the future of the Library as a whole, with huge support being shown for fair funding of the library via an online petition. However, this time, I really do believe there is scant public money for anything and there will be even less post-pandemic. Also, and I may get a few people’s backs up by saying this, but a part of me has very little sympathy for organisations who have the capacity to generate their own revenue but haven’t exploited it to the full. Organisations such as the National Library should, in 2021 (pandemic notwithstanding) be running their operation as a business, with some government support to help provide free elements to the public.
For anyone unfamiliar with the work of the library, it says on its website that it has the right to a copy of every publication printed in Britain and Ireland. Think about it. Really think about it. Does this mean that in bowels of our precious National Library somewhere is Morrissey’s atrocious sex scene in his novel List of the Lost? I would wager it does.
Let me repeat, it houses every publication printed in Britain and Ireland. But that’s not all. Here’s some of the other treasures it houses:
- 7,000,000 feet of film
- 250,000 hours of video
- 6,000,000 books and newspapers
- 40,000 manuscripts
- 1,500,000 maps
- 150,000 hours of sound
- 950,000 photographs
- 60,000 works of art
- 1,900 cubic meters of archives
This should be a marketing team’s dream. You could go as niche or populist as you like with these treasures and go absolutely nuts with the merch (and that merch shouldn’t just include way-out-of-your budget Kyffin Williams prints).
I’m not being facetious and I’m not trying to take away from the important academic side of its operation, the two can co-exist. But wearing the hat of my 16-year career in PR, let me tell you what should be happening to secure its financial future.
It should house free permanent exhibitions and paid for special exhibitions (people would pay), spaces for children to engage fully with Welsh culture and history (to ensure a generation grows up feeling that the Library is theirs) and the building itself should be used to its fullest.
The National Library has a tent at the National Eisteddfod every year and in 2019 they brought with them an escape room which featured several of the Library’s items as clues. It was brilliant. I love escape rooms and I’m sure they will still be du jour post-pandemic so why not have this as a permanent feature at the Library? And charge people to use it.
In 2016, Y Llyfrgell / The Library Suicides film was set there and I don’t remember seeing anything very memorable from the library marketing-wise to align itself with it to generate buzz around the institution. Where was the merch? Where was the spine tingling after dark library tour?
And for the academics? I understand that, back in the day (and by back in the day I’m talking the 60s and 70s), it produced a magazine that was full of articles written by staff of the university as a way of highlighting the many treasures housed within its walls. Could this be resurrected as a low cost digital magazine, with a mix of staff and guest authors to showcase its important work? I don’t know, is the answer, but someone should.
At the end of the day, this isn’t about my views or my love for a landmark or even about a library; it’s really about Wales and its culture and treasures which belong to all of us; Welsh speaking, non-Welsh speaking, black, white, working class and self-proclaimed upper-middle-class.
That, in my opinion deserves protecting at all cost.
Esyllt Sears is a writer and comedian and a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.