The National Library of Wales

On this Expedition to The National Library of Wales, we’ll tour the Library building and learn about various aspects of the Library’s work, including document conservation and digitization.

By The National Library of Wales

The National Library of WalesThe National Library of Wales

The tour will also showcase some of the Library’s varied and unique collections.

The National Library of Wales

The National Library of Wales was given the status of a national institution by royal permission in March 1907. The Library is located in Aberystwyth, overlooking the town and the Irish Sea.

Its collections include books, periodicals, newspapers, photographs, maps, pictures, manuscripts, and a sound and screen archive. All of the collections have relevance to Wales.

Sir John Williams with the foundation stone at The National Library of Wales (1911)The National Library of Wales

Laying the foundations

Building work started on the Library in 1911. Sir John Williams, present at the laying of the foundation stone, was a key patron who donated his collection of manuscripts to the Library on condition that it would be established in Aberystwyth.

Sidney Kyffin Greenslade (1908)The National Library of Wales

The architect of the building

In 1908, 6 architects were invited to present their plans and designs for a new Library building. The successful applicant was Sidney Kyffin Greenslade.  

Plaque marking the official opening of The National Library of Wales (2016) by National Library of WalesThe National Library of Wales

The official opening—1937

Building continued for 5 years from 1911, and by 1916 the Library was open to the public. The first stage of construction was not actually completed until 1937, when King George VI officially opened the Library.  

The building materials

The main feature of the building is the Portland Stone used to construct the exterior walls. This stone is well suited to withstand harsh weather conditions.

The North Reading Room

Members of the public must be aged 16 or older and have a valid reader's ticket in order to make use of the collections available in this room.

The National Library of Wales is a reference Library, which means that reading materials are not for loan or sale, but must be read on site.

Copyright Library (Legal Deposit)

In 1911, The National Library of Wales became a copyright library, which gave it the right to receive one copy of every book, map, magazine and newspaper published in Britain and Ireland free of charge. 

Sir John Williams, by Christopher Williams (Between 1900 and 1919) by Williams, ChristopherThe National Library of Wales

Sir John Williams

Sir John Williams's priceless collection of over 25,000 items relating to Wales includes one of the earliest books printed in Welsh—it dates to 1546. Williams was the first president of the Library and served until his death in 1926.

North Reading Room at The National Library of Wales (2016) by National Library of WalesThe National Library of Wales

A place to study

After reading, studying and researching, readers collect and return their items to the main desk located in the centre of the room.

A Picture Store Room

This storage space was designed especially for paintings and artwork. Temperature, humidity and even light can affect artworks; therefore, these environmental factors are controlled and monitored carefully.  

Most of the artwork in this storage space is from Welsh artist Kyffin Williams. Kyffin Williams was inspired by the landscape of north Wales and is renowned for his trademark technique of using thick oil paint placed on the canvas with a palette knife.

John Williams, Caeau Gwynion (1979) by Kyffin Williams (1918-2006)The National Library of Wales

Kyffin Williams’s portraits

Kyffin Williams produced many portraits. He was an expressive artist, which means that he put a lot of emotion into his paintings. He claimed to have created his best works when he was happy or angry.

Mr Henry Morris, Llanedwen (1979) by Kyffin Williams (1918-2006)The National Library of Wales

Ink and pencil sketches

Although famous for his oil paintings, Kyffin Williams also made many sketches using pencil or ink.  In this sketch, he used ink and wash to achieve different tones and textures, which create shadowing and perspective. 

Nant Ffrancon (Between 1960 and 1970) by Kyffin Williams (1918-2006)The National Library of Wales

Landscape paintings

Often Kyffin Williams’s artworks focus on the mountainous landscapes of north Wales, with its cottages and local farmers under dramatic skies. The colors he used in his works were often very dark.

Stormy sea (Between 1970 and 1990) by Kyffin Williams (1918-2006)The National Library of Wales

Thick oil on canvas

Kyffin Williams often used a technique called impasto, in which thick oil paint is heavily applied onto the canvas with a palette knife.  His unique way of painting means you can almost feel the energy he used in putting the paint on the canvas.

The Cells

This long dark corridor is home to The National Library of Wales’s most valuable items. Behind each heavy blue door are irreplaceable, historically significant items from Wales and the wider world, stored here under great security.

The temperature and humidity of the storage cells are controlled to keep the items inside in the best condition.

Black Book of Carmarthen (f. 4 r.) (1225/1275)The National Library of Wales

The Black Book of Carmarthen

Irreplaceable treasures such as the Black Book of Carmarthen are kept on these shelves. Handwritten on hard parchment, this book from the 13th century contains the oldest collection of poetry in Welsh. 


If a fire started inside one of these cells, CO² (carbon dioxide) would be pumped into the room to extinguish the fire. Extinguishing the fire with CO², rather than water from a sprinkler system, protects the cell’s valuable contents from possible water damage.

Temperature and humidity control

Air is pumped through these vents into the cells to control humidity and temperature. The important items that are stored here have to be kept at the right temperature and in conditions that aren’t too dry or too damp.

Digitization Studio

Digitization is the process of converting text, pictures, or sound into forms that can be presented on a computer. The Library uses many different pieces of equipment to capture the best quality digital images possible without harming the often fragile original materials. 

Digitizing the collections allows them to be opened up to the world and makes the content easier to find. It is also a way of keeping old, fragile items safe for the future.

Digital camera

The size and condition of the original item determines which equipment is used to digitize it. A digital camera is often used when the original material is too large to be scanned on a scanner. 

Curved magnetic wall at The National Library of Wales (2016) by National Library of WalesThe National Library of Wales

Curved magnetic wall

To overcome problems with scanning large items, the Library has created a curved magnetic wall where items are held in place with strong magnets. An item is digitized in parts using a digital camera, and the parts are combined using special computer software.

A Tithe map from the collections of The National Library of WalesThe National Library of Wales

Tithe map

Tithes were taxes paid to the church or to landlords by land users. Tithe maps showing land ownership were produced in England and Wales between 1836 and 1850, when tithe payments were changed from goods to money. 

Conservation Unit

An important part of The National Library of Wales’s work is to protect its collections. In this part of the Library, staff members treat and repair items that require special care. Their work includes re-stitching the bindings of old books, cleaning old archives and restoring old paintings. 

Conservation work at The National Library of Wales (2016) by National Library of WalesThe National Library of Wales

The unit is also responsible for preventative conservation—they assure that items are handled and stored in a way that won’t hurt them. Their work involves skills and techniques that have been used for many centuries.

Wooden book vice at The National Library of Wales (2016) by National Library of WalesThe National Library of Wales

Wooden book vice

The wooden book vice is used to hold a volume in position while it is repaired. Several pages (gatherings) are stitched together to form the binding. When the whole book has been sewn together, it is covered in leather for protection. 

Chemical chamber at The National Library of Wales (2016) by National Library of WalesThe National Library of Wales

Chemical chamber

Sometimes staff have to work with very strong chemicals. This work has to be done in a special chamber to protect staff members from inhaling dangerous fumes or from the risk of skin burns. 

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