The New Library
On Tuesday 15 November 1892 the New Library at Old College was officially opened by A.H.D. Acland, Vice-President of the Council of Education in William Ewart Gladstone’s fourth government.
In the early years of the University College of Wales, the Library had been located on the floor immediately above the entrance hall of Old College, in what was the drawing-room of the original Castle House, and roughly where the Council Chamber is today. As a result of the generosity of donors, the library grew fairly rapidly during the 1870s, and by 1878 Principal Thomas Charles Edwards was complaining that ‘the Library will in a short time be too small to contain the books purchased and presented.’
By 1885 the College had become well established, but on the night of 8 July a fire broke out in the chemistry laboratory on the top floor of the building, destroying most of the north wing. The library did not escape unscathed and volunteers had to work through the night to salvage the books. Most of these were taken to houses in Laura Place with the overflow being left in heaps on Laura Place gardens, the area that now surrounds St Michael’s Church.
Following the fire, the decision to redesign and rebuild Old College rather than relocate to a site outside the town, which had been the original intention of the College Authorities, meant that a purpose designed library could now be built.
In 1890 Principal Thomas Charles Edwards toured the United States and Canada, visiting communities of expatriate Welsh, appealing for money to equip and furnish the new library. His appeal was successful, raising £1,050, which is equivalent to over £70,000 today.
When he heard of the fire, John Pollard Seddon, the architect of the Castle Hotel, had rushed to Aberystwyth, eager to help the College Authorities. As well as plans for the building, Seddon also drew up plans for the new library, but in 1891 Principal Edwards proposed to the Building Committee that the library be fitted ‘with shelves and cases etc., in accordance with designs by Mr C.J. Ferguson’, the architect that would later design Alexandra Hall and the central block at Old College that would replace John Nash’s Castle House.
The lowest tender for the building work in the library was for £288, and ‘if the stonework behind the shelves was left unplastered and other stonework done by a “local man”’, then the tender could be brought down to £190. Ferguson also suggested that a further saving ‘of £11 could be made by substituting brackets for the columns supporting the gallery, and that furthermore, if the gallery was not made fireproof another reduction of £20 to £30 was possible’. This would bring the cost down to around £150. Bear in mind that these suggestions were made after the 1885 fire that had could have not only destroyed the building but also the future of the College itself.
The Building Committee had also accepted a tender of £696 for the shelving and fittings, but they were again prepared to allow Ferguson to go through the specifications with a view to reducing the costs as long as they didn’t impair too much on the overall effect of the room.
For most of the 20th century the library was known as the General Library. By the 1970s it had again become too small to contain the books and periodicals that were being bought, and when the Hugh Owen Library was opened in 1976, as part of the expansion onto the Penglais Campus, it was renamed The Old College Library and housed materials for the few remaining departments in the building. In October 2011, when the remaining books were moved to the Hugh Owen Library, it became the Old College Study Centre.
The money given by the expatriate Welsh in American and Canada was sufficient to defray all the expenses of furnishing the library, and their generosity is acknowledged in the inscription on the plaque that was hurriedly produced for the occasion of the installation of Prince Edward, later King Edward VII, as the first Chancellor of the University of Wales on 29 June 1896 and placed on the wall of the library.
Dodrefnwyd y llyfrgell hon gan Gymry cenedlgarol yn yr Unol Daleithiau ac yn Canada 1890. “Cas gŵr na charo y wlad a’i maco.”
[This library was furnished by patriotic Welshmen in the United States and Canada 1890. ‘Hated is the man that does not love the country that raised him.’]
T.G. Lloyd, The Old College Library: an historical account (1992)
J. Roger Webster, Old College Aberystwyth: the evolution of a High Victorian building (1995)