St Deiniol’s Library: A Haven for Research

by Anna Blanch on May 17, 2010

After a week of research, reflection, and rest, my time at St Deiniol’s comes to an end this afternoon as I journey back to the east coast of Scotland and the wonders of the auld grey toon, St Andrews.

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St Deiniol’s Residential Library was founded in 1894 by William Ewart Gladstone in the little welsh village of Hawarden near to Hawarden Castle, his childhood home. In addition to being a residential library — a unique experience — St Deiniol’s is also the only Prime Ministerial library in Britain. During a political career lasting over sixty years and serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer for thirteen years, Gladstone was Prime Minister for a cumulative period of almost fourteen years in four different stints (1868-1874, 1880-1885, February-July 1886 and 1892-1894). He retired at 84 years of age giving him the distinction of being Britain’s oldest Prime Minister.

Following in the steps of E.B. Pusey (d.1882), Gladstone decided that his personal library would provide a useful foundation collection for a new library. He chose not to give his books to Oxford or any other library overflowing with resources, but rather to establish a Residential Library “for the pursuit of divine learning.”
The initial collection of 32,000 books moved from Gladstone’s personal study, known as the Temple of peace, in Hawarden Castle has now grown to over 250,000 books.

The library is not a lending library, but rather provides a place of refuge, calm, and monastic peace for those looking to write, research, or retreat (or all three). St Deiniol’s proposes that over 170 books have been largely, or in part, researched and written in the library since 2000. The sheer weight of scholarship being produced as a result of time within the hallowed halls is a testament to the quality of resources, but also to the atmosphere which simultaneously seems to encourage inquiry, restfulness of spirit, contemplation, and endeavour without promoting scholarly pomposity.

I love books and libraries, but I have to say that this week is the first time I have ever slept in one. The accommodation at St Deiniol’s is comfortable. The staff are efficient, proactive, and thoughtful without being officious. The dawning awareness that there were new groups in the library for retreats, meetings, or conferences, made me realise how impressive it is that had I not seen these groups in the dining room I would not have known of their presence — what i mean to say is that my own research and writing was not at all hindered by the other uses the library has come to serve and this, my friends, is quite a feat.

I had the pleasure of reading W.E. Gladstone’s copy of E.Nesbit’s Leaves of Life (1888) this week. I have a copy of the same edition but it was a pleasure holding Gladstone’s copy and marvelling again at the detailed work on the cover and the texture of the pages, knowing that Gladstone once held and read this book. There is only limited marginal annotation in this copy, but like the rest of the 22 000 annotated editions from Gladstone’s original collection it matters not how much, just that it is. This copy was a gift from a friend “J.(?)S. Marshall Stale (?)” who writes:

The Right Hon.
W.E. Gladstone, M.P.
from one who knows him

Not given to informality, were they?

My purpose in visiting St Deiniol’s was to continue some research I am doing on E.Nesbit’s place in the context of Christian Socialism and this was more than catered to by the impressive collection. While 40% of the original 32,000 books could be broadly labeled theology which means that St Deiniol’s is a very important research library for theology and religious studies, the library has an impressive collection of nineteenth century materials dealing with the arts and humanities. I am sure it becomes plain that for a researcher like myself interested in Theology and Literature and the nineteenth century that St Deiniol’s is a rare gem.

One of the lovely things about St Deiniol’s is that anyone can use the library. By anyone, the library means: academic, theologians, historians, bibliophiles, writers, clergy, laity, students, schoolchildren, tourists. Take a look at their website for more information. If you are a PhD student, academic or scholar interested in spending some time at St Deiniol’s you can find more information about fellowships and busaries here. [Pretty much the only thing they don’t do is weddings, this is after all a library not a wedding chapel). It’s also worth a visit if happen to be in the vicinity of Chester or on your way to or from Snowdonia or any of the other mountains or castles in this beautiful part of Wales. Getting here by train is quite the adventure (doable though, so don’t let me put you off), but that deserves a post all of its own.

In addition to reading some crucial-for-my-research books I’ve also written significantly more than i could have expected to.  In my little nook I’m surrounded by books about Quakers, Methodists and the Wesley’s (it’s possible that Serena Trowbrige and I have been using the same space, although she calls it “my Baptist Turret”) with large windows and lots of light. I look over into the open space of the theology “room” – more like a large hall – proper. The lack of photos of my work space and the internals of the library is due to a rookie mistake in leaving a spare battery for my SLR at home but that just gives me another excuse to come back here. Not that I need excuses…I am hoping to return at some point to consider the rise of spiritualism in the early twentieth century and how Nesbit fitted into that curious incident of social-cultural-theological history.

Have you visited St Deiniol’s? Would you like to visit? What would you like to research while you’re there?

Library Image: Anna M. Blanch 2010
Theology Room image: Serena Trowbridge here
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Anna Blanch is founder of Goannatree, and a PhD student in the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, Scotland.

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