Columns

Librarium Part One

19 August 2007 | Columns
Originally published at The Idler

Along with cafes, pubs and narrow boats, libraries have always been a top-drawer refuge for idlers. Oscar Wilde used to immerse himself in the beautiful literature of the British Museum’s reading room, as did George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. The idle life’s founding father, Samuel Johnson is also said to have been something of a bibliophile having once achieved the autodidactic feat of reading 35 000 volumes of the Harlean Library in way of constructing a catalogue for it.

A good library can be a comfortable oasis amid the hubbub of an otherwise busy city and the best sort is host to everything the urban flaneur holds dear: peace and quiet, dog-eared books, crackly old jazz records, fascinating characters lurking in every corner and haphazard furnishings liberated from innumerable closed-down gentleman’s clubs. Today’s library directors are forced to go the extra mile to make these oases all the more appealing: these days the daily papers are laid out ready for you; access is granted to the digital delights of the Internet; librarians are getting younger and more attractive and it’s all absolutely free. Many public libraries are even installing coffee and tea facilities for their punters. No wonder Ray Bradbury described these as “birthing places of the universe”. All we need now are on-site tobacconists and somewhere to get some shut-eye and we need not ever bother going home.

That’s precisely the idea taken into account by Saint Deiniol’s Library in the leafy town of Hawarden in Wales: the only library in the UK to have bedrooms. Not only is the library (of 230 thousand theology, philosophy and history books) housed in a beautiful and rambling nineteenth-century country house; you can also stay the night there – or even a month. That’s right: it’s a residential library. For a relatively low sum of money you have your own bibliographic retreat at which you can make full use of the collection; have dinner; sleep in a proper bed and wake up to enjoy a continental breakfast. Heaven on Earth, surely. They even have a copy of Johnson’s Idler in the annexe. To think that people pay so much money to go to health spas.

The library was initially put together by Victorian politician and dedicated polymath, William E. Gladstone (though the current building wasn’t erected until after his death, as a publicly-funded memorial). Gladstone was probably an enemy of idleness: he was the holder of three first-class university degrees, curator of this great library, self-stated utilitarian, staunchly religious, four-time prime minister of Britain and it seems that (for a spell during his early years) he opposed the abolition of slavery and factory legislation. Phew. He even personally delivered many of the books from his private residence to a publicly accessible building by wheelbarrow, shortly after his eightieth birthday. Nonetheless, you can’t help but admire the guy’s gung-ho spirit and his ability to stick in the craw of Queen Victoria who once remarked upon his insolent lack of formality in her presence.

Why exactly Gladstone chose to erect the only residential library in Britain rather than a regular non-residential one remains something of a mystery but James Cape Story (a regular Saint Deiniol’s patron circa 1905) was right in declaring the library, “a place for restful meditation, for research, for mental and spiritual refreshment”.

Health Spas? Pfft.