Cardiff saves rare-book riches from dispersal

University acquires 14,000-title collection of works spanning four centuries. Matthew Reisz reports

April 8, 2010

A collection of 14,000 books originally assembled as part of plans for Cardiff to become the site of the National Library of Wales has found a new home at Cardiff University.

Jonathan Osmond, pro vice-chancellor for education and students, said the collection was part of Cardiff's heritage.

"The books reflect all the major stages in book production from the earliest printed works to modern fine bindings, and touch on many of the cultural and literary trends in Europe from the 16th century onwards."

Built over two centuries and formerly housed at Cardiff City Library, the collection incorporates donations from leading Welsh families.

As such, it reflects the history of Welsh literary taste. But Janet Peters, director of university libraries at Cardiff, said that since it was designed to form the basis of a national library, the collection is also "remarkably representative of four whole centuries".

It was planned as "a proper rare-books collection, with examples of different types of book, genres, bindings and illustrations", she said.

Cardiff's hopes to host the National Library of Wales were dashed in 1907, when it was founded instead in Aberystwyth. Cardiff's Welsh-language holdings were sent there, but the remaining British and continental material was left behind.

When the university heard of Cardiff Council's plans to sell off the collection about three years ago, it decided to act.

Ms Peters recalled: "We were worried it would be auctioned off and dispersed, so we worked hard to keep it together and within Wales."

The university put £500,000 towards the cost of buying the collection, with further funding from Cardiff Council, the Welsh Assembly government, Museums Archives and Libraries Wales and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.

The university's special collection had hitherto consisted mainly of works purchased in the 19th century, and either written in Welsh or dealing with Wales.

That collection has now been dramatically enhanced, with books from across Europe dealing with pretty much everything under the sun.

With its new acquisition, Cardiff's holding of incunabula (early printed books) has risen from zero to 175, putting it among the top 10 collections in Britain. There is also a significant travel section, with 250 rare atlases and a signed copy of Ernest Shackleton's account of his journey to Antarctica.

Its material on Restoration drama and its 17th- and 18th-century editions of Shakespeare are as comprehensive as anywhere in Britain apart from the British Library and the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford. Bibles, herbals and limited-edition books printed by private presses of the late 19th and early 20th century are also well represented.

All these will be housed within the Arts and Social Studies Library and will be available to the general public, with plans to digitise many of the more important volumes.

Ms Peters said the acquisition means that the university's collection is likely to be the largest collection of early non-Welsh material in Wales.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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