I spent last week in sunny Aberystwyth, home to the National Library of Wales. The town is small, only about 20,00 people, and everywhere you go you can see the huge grey library perched on the hill. I took a tour and was privileged enough to see behind the scenes and find out something about its collections. It’s one of six legal deposit or copyright libraries in the UK and Ireland, entitled to receive a copy of every publication. As in every library, space is a perennial issue and the 100-year-old original building has been extended several times. As the tour moved deeper into the library, we found ourselves in more and more modern extensions.
The main focus of its special collections is of course the history and heritage of Wales. As well as printed and manuscript material, it also houses the Welsh national screen and sound archive. There are usually several exhibitions on at any time but sadly, their two most famous treasures, the Black Book of Camarthen and the Hengwrt Chaucer weren’t on display. The guide on the tour told us how they played their part in ensuring that the National Library was built in Aberystwyth rather than Cardiff or anywhere else. The physician and book collector Sir John Williams (1840-1926) promised to give his stunning collection of over 26,000 books and manuscripts, including both the Black Book and the Chaucer, to the new National Library of Wales, provided that it was sited in Aberystwyth – an offer that couldn’t be refused.
I was particularly interested in the library’s Digital Mirror which is making its collections available online. Several medieval manuscripts have been digitised, including the Black Book of Camarthen, Latin and Welsh versions of the laws of Hywel Dda (which can be compared with the version in CCC MS 454). I found equally fascinating some of the material relating to nineteenth-century Welsh emigration to America and Australia, including letters sent back home. A whole digital project relates to the links between Wales and Ohio, including letters, printed materials, photographs and maps.