Libraries gave us power, sang the Manic Street Preachers, but what really happens behind the bookshelves at Wales’ own cultural powerhouse, the National Library of Wales? From novelists to genealogists, PhD students and poets, we spoke to some of the many and varied readers of the National Library of Wales to find out what they are up to behind the bookshelves.
“There is nothing better than getting a box of documents from the archive and reading through people’s letters and diaries.”
Calista Williams, Open University PhD student.
“I am studying for a PhD in history at the Open University in collaboration with the National Library of Wales (NLW). My thesis explores the development of the NLW and examines how it was established, organised and managed in the late Victorian and early Edwardian era. The thesis also evaluates the impact of the library’s services and explores the connection between the NLW and Welsh national identity during this period.
I grew up in Hampshire and Buckinghamshire and then at 18 I came to Aberystwyth University to study Drama. After finishing my degree, I worked at Aberystwyth University Bookshop but I suppose I still wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. On a whim I decided to start volunteering with the National Trust as a gardener which I loved, and I was given the opportunity to run children’s workshops and help plan events. The staff at Llanerchaeron were so supportive and they encouraged me to apply to do a Masters in History and Heritage at Aberystwyth University. It started from there really. I began the MA part-time and loved it and, at the same time, I also started to volunteer at the NLW. I worked on a volunteer project entitled ‘Corporate Records’ which involved sorting through some of the library’s own archival material and transcribing it – looking at acquisition records to sheep grazing rights! This was when my interest in the library’s history was piqued and I began to develop a PhD proposal. I was then lucky enough to secure a studentship at the OU in 2013.
Luckily, I only live 10 minutes’ walk from the NLW – the downside is it’s up a steep hill, so I usually arrive red-faced and out of breath! I spilt my time between my desk, which the library has kindly provided for me and the public reading rooms. A couple of days a week I work with a group of library volunteers who have been helping me enter information into a database on the first subscribers to the library building fund and the early readers. I often have lunch in the library café with friends or, if it’s warm, sit outside and enjoy the beautiful views. During the first half of my PhD I spent a lot of time working in the reading rooms looking at archival documents but now I spend more time writing up my thesis. There is really nothing better than getting a box of documents from the archive and reading through people’s letters and diaries – history really comes alive in those moments.
I love the fact that this huge building and archival resource – usually situated in a city – sits above a Victorian seaside town looking out on the Welsh countryside – it is very much unique in that respect. It is special to me personally as it’s where I discovered a real passion for history and since then I have uncovered so many interesting things about the library and its history.
Thought about starting your own family history? Don’t know where to start? Why not pay a visit to the Family and Local History Fair to be held here at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth on Saturday, 14 May. It is the ideal place for a beginner to gain some knowledge of how to start researching, where to go and what is available.
This will be the third Fair held at the Library and again there will be over twenty stands in attendance in the Gregynog Gallery. As well as family history experts from the Library, county family history societies will be there to share their wealth of local knowledge, to sell their transcripts and indexes to parish registers, census returns and memorial inscriptions. Others will specialise in local history and the history of Wales. There will be plenty of books for sale – new ones relating to family and local history research, but also second hand books and maps. If you need help with photographs that is also covered as is photo restoration if yours have seen better days.
‘Sources for local and family history in Wales’ by Michael Freeman, sharing his knowledge and expertise as a researcher.
‘Identifying and Interpreting Family Photographs’ by William Troughton, the Library’s Visual Images Librarian takes you on a tour of discovery in identifying those essential clues in dating and identifying old photographs.
Libraries gave us power, sang the Manic Street Preachers, but what really happens behind the bookshelves at Wales’ own cultural powerhouse, the National Library of Wales?
Matthew Rees, PhD candidate at Aberystwyth University’s International Politics department.
“I’m at the National Library most days. The variety of books, wonderful working environment with excellent light, desks at the right height – for someone who’s 6 foot 6, this is a real benefit – and really helpful and friendly staff are what attract me. The fact that all the staff speak Welsh, but I don’t think it’s an intimidating environment for my non-Welsh speaking friends, is also excellent, as it’s one of the few places I can use Welsh all day.
I’m originally from Cardiff and was brought up in an English-speaking home, but went to a Welsh medium school. I then went to the University of Warwick to do my first degree in politics. After this I returned to Cardiff to do a masters at Cardiff University. At this time, I became very interested in the relationship between religion and politics, and decided to pursue this interest through research. I arrived in Aberystwyth in 2012 to study for my doctorate. My research looks at faith-based political engagement in the devolved regions of the UK. Religious organisations and faith-based organisations traditionally wielded a large amount of power in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland but their influence declined during the 20th century.
The National Library has been such a gift over the past three years of research. Being able to work in a library with almost every book ever published in the UK is such a privilege when studying the devolved regions of the UK. The library’s archives have also been helpful when it came to the primary research on Wales, the very helpful and friendly staff have gone out of their way to give me access to difficult to find sources.
“I usually walk up Penglais hill at around 9 and pop into the International politics department for around half an hour before heading down to the library. I then put my things into one of the lockers, show the porters my readers card and enter the library. I normally sit in the same spot in the North room at the end of the reading room.
“The North room is so beautiful. In a strange way it’s very modern despite also having a grand old feel about it. The library has done a very good job of creating a library space which is fit for modern research, but it keeps its feel as an old institution at the same time. You really feel the sense of history in the place, while at the same time feeling like it’s your library to use and come up with something new.
I like silence to work, with no distractions- that’s why I go to the National Library. It’s one of the few places in the world where you genuinely get that!
Reading and writing a for a thesis takes huge concentration and really drains energy and makes eyes weary, so it’s important to take routine breaks, especially when you’re doing it day in, day out and often on weekends for four years. The library’s Café Pendinas comes in handy at these points, the coffee shop feels as much like a lounge as a business establishment.
The library staff here are all genuinely interested in what you’re doing. The porters often ask how things are going and you get to know these people after a while. It’s a really iconic place to work, whilst keeping a friendly feel about it at the same time.”
Libraries gave us power, sang the Manic Street Preachers, but what really happens behind the bookshelves at Wales’ own cultural powerhouse, The National Library of Wales? From novelists to genealogists, PhD students and poets, we spoke to some of the many and varied readers of the National Library of Wales to find out what they are up to behind the bookshelves.
Jacqui Kenton, freelance genealogist, based in Aberystwyth.
“My proximity to The National Library of Wales is very attractive to my clients, with its wealth of historical resources which aren’t available online. Many of them are from the USA or Australia – they are often curious and passionate about their Welsh roots and Aberystwyth isn’t the easiest place to get to so it’s by far cheaper to pay me to look into it for them.
“Living just ten minutes away from the library I’m here at least 3 or 4 times a week. I tend to base myself in the South Reading Room where the parish registers and archives are kept. It’s a true hub of Welsh history and you do feel privileged to work from such a wonderful facility. There are three other genealogists I know working in North Wales, Pembrokeshire and Cardiff, but they will often ask me to access information as so much of the really useful resources are kept here.
I often see other researchers beavering away diligently in the reading rooms, but as you would expect there is a deathly hush. Every now and then you hear some excited chatter when something is discovered but generally noise is frowned upon.
“I get all sorts of commissions – from an Australian goldminer who gave me some names and locations and just said ‘go’, to people who have begun their research but have hit a brick wall. I always hope I can help them but I work forensically – I will only work with absolute proof, so if I can’t be sure I have the right person I will tell them. The biggest issue I face as a Welsh family history researcher is commonality. Being given a Jones can be a
horror as it casts the net so widely and the same goes for Davies, Hughes and Richards. Further back in Welsh history, patronymics can also be an issue. Generally speaking, if your family were posh, it’s quite easy to find records of wills, land deeds and the like to help in the search, but the same goes for criminality, there are lots of records of the badly behaved.
“Sometimes, I’ll get requests for something other than family trees. I was recently commissioned by Christie’s in New York to look into the provenance of two tables they had for auction. It was thought that they might have been owned by Sir Watkins Williams-Wynn of Welsh nobility and they wanted me to prove the link. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do so but while looking into it via account books and letters at the library I discovered a fascinating tale of a servant who was eventually hung for his crimes. I am considering writing a book about the story I found there.”
The first ever Wikipedia Edit-a-thon will be held at the National Library on the 10th of April. Come along to learn how to edit and help improve content on Wikipedia. This event will focus on creating and improving articles about Welsh Photographers, their lives, their careers and their photographs. The event ties in with the launch of a major exhibition on the life and work of Philip Jones Griffiths to be held at The National Library of Wales later this year.
The event will be hosted by the Wikipedian in Residence Jason Evans and William Troughton the National Library’s Visual Images Librarian together with experienced Wikipedians. It will begin at 10am with introductions and training before editing begins!
Wikipedia is one of the most viewed websites in the world and the Welsh version is by far the most viewed Welsh language website in the world. It is the largest encyclopedia ever created, and it is written by the people for the people. Anyone can edit and add content to this rich resource.
With funding support from Wikimedia UK the Wikipedian in Residence is a concept which has already proved its worth in other institutions such as the British Library, the National Library of Scotland and the Natural History Museum. Now the National Library of Wales has appointed a Wikipedian in Residence.
The residency will run for one year with the goal of building lasting bridges between The National Library and Wikipedia. This will enable us to share our collections with the world, to improve the quantity and quality of Wikipedia content, particularly in the Welsh language. It is hoped that by supporting and contributing to such a high profile resource we can begin to realise the Library’s ambition of ‘Information for All’ and this in turn will draw people back to our website and to the Library.
The first aspect of the residency will focus on offering workshops to staff, so that they can become wikipedia editors themselves. A series of events called ‘Editathons’ will also be organised, where volunteer editors of all backgrounds can come together and spend a day improving the content on a particular subject, in English or Welsh (or any other language of their choosing).
The second aspect of the residency will involve releasing some of the Library’s digital collections on open licences so that they can be uploaded to Wiki-commons. From there anyone can use the images to improve Wikipedia content. By the end of the residency it is hoped that a more permanent system will be in place, whereby our digital media can be shared with Wikipedia as a matter of course.
From correcting spelling and grammar to creating detailed new articles from scratch, everyone has a role to play in the development of Wikipedia as a portal to Welsh life, culture and history.
Try searching for any subject on the Web without finding Wikipedia among your top results! The online encyclopedia has come a long way since its first appearance on 15 January 2001, now attracting hundreds of millions of users each month. A version in the Welsh language was also launched in July 2003 and now contains over 60,000 articles. And what is most remarkable about Wikipedia platforms is that you can not only read its content, but also edit and add to it yourselves.
With such a wide audience and as a resource that has been created and developed by its users, Wikipedia offers a great opportunity to present Wales, its culture, its heritage to its people and the world.
Today, the National Library of Wales celebrates Wikipedia’s fourteenth birthday by announcing the appointment of a Wikipedian in Residence in partnership with Wikimedia UK. The post will last a year and aims to establish a sustainable relationship between the Library and Wikipedia.
The Wikipedian will look at new ways of engaging with users and will organise activities such as ‘editathons’ to assist Library staff and users to contribute to Wikipedia.
The Wikipedian will also work closely with staff throughout the Library to identify materials from the Library’s collections that can be contributed to the Welsh and English versions of Wikipedia in order to raise awareness of Wales and its people.
Jason Evans has been appointed to the role and will begin in post on 19 January.
Jason Evans, Wikipedian in Residence at The National Library of Wales
Though always informative, it must be remembered that the wills left by our ancestors are legally binding documents and as such follow a rather dry format, leaving little room for the writer’s individuality to shine through. However there are exceptions – little gems of eccentricity or affection that begin to colour the faded lives of the dead.
The last will and testament of the Rev. Henry Williams (c.1769-1825) begins in the usual manner – “In the name of God my Saviour, I Henry Williams of the town of Cardiff”. Yet, we soon find great bitterness in the testator’s words;
“Not one farthing is to go through the hands of that accomplished villain William Higgon…who killed my sister through cruel usage”. This, swiftly followed by “Rees and his wife are disinherited for the lies, imposition and bad usage they heaped upon me”
More interesting still is the elderly vicar’s passionate homage to his late Grandfather, and his reminiscences of childhood;
“The venerable Thomas Williams, the Gentleman, the Scholar, the Christian, having lived in happy wedlock with Mary his wife 65 years, a woman of the greatest industry, a mother to the poor and adorned with every Christian virtue, whose prayers I heard put up for me when a child”
The will continues with instructions to finish his house in Lanishen and to rename it “Chapel House, being formally a place of worship, and I remember part of the Ten Commandments on one of the walls”
So who was this “venerable grandfather”? And what of the house with its biblical décor? One discovery led to another and, using our online catalogue, I soon discovered a bundle of research notes into one Thomas Williams of Lanishen. It transpires that the grandfather had been a Methodist exhorter in the 1740’s, and his house, a meeting place for likeminded evangelists. The great hymnist Charles Wesley took shelter there during a fierce storm and thereafter the Wesley brothers were always welcomed at the “Chapel house” at Lanishen.
And all this from a few lines of a will. Search today and unlock the past!
The centenary commemoration programme to remember World War One has already began in Wales and further afield. During the next few years it has been anticipated that more and more people will have an interest in this area, therefore, we decided to place a series of books on the open shelves in the North Reading Room in order to help the researchers. The three Welsh Regiments will probably be of most interest to our readers – The Welsh Regiment, The Royal Welch Fusiliers and The South Wales Borderers. The series of books outlining the history of the regiments and their work during World War One, with additional works relating to other Welsh battalions are now on the shelves. I’m sure that there will be many more works produced on the subject over the next few years and we hope to add them to the series. If you have any suggestions for publications we should add please let us know.
We have responded to comments for a more streamlined service when using newspapers at the National Library of Wales by making it possible to access all formats of newspapers in one reading room.
You can now view original copies, microfilm copies and access our new resource, Welsh Newspapers Online, in one dedicated area in the South Reading Room. Staff are on hand to assist you in your search, and to help you to use our new interactive touch table to access Welsh Newspapers Online.
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A blog about the work and collections of the National Library of Wales.
Due to the more personal nature of blogs it is the Library's policy to publish postings in the original language only. An equal number of blog posts are published in both Welsh and English, but they are not the same postings. For a translation of the blog readers may wish to try facilities such as Google Translate.