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An Old Library Models New Wisdom

Would Prime Minister William Gladstone have his own statue removed if he was still alive today?

Just before the world shut down, the Spouse and I ran away to the library. Just the two of us and the library we chose was three hours away. I was finishing a writing project, the Spouse was starting a new work, and we both wanted time to concentrate. It would be a backwards Sabbath, maybe, but a rest and a refocus nonetheless. When friends offered to babysit for the weekend, we packed up our books and drove north towards Gladstone’s Library.

Founded in 1895, it is billed as the UK’s finest residential library and was founded by William Gladstone himself, the progressive liberal prime minister. It was his desire to “bring together books who had no readers with readers who had no books,” so when he retired from politics at the age of 85, he gave £40,000 and much of his personal collection to found this philanthropic library. The story goes that, together with his valet and one of his daughters, Gladstone himself wheeled 32,000 books three quarters of a mile between his home at Hawarden Castle and the library. The library is still open to all, dedicated to Gladstone’s democratic principles, and probably the best B&B in Wales.

A road trip as two is a very different adventure from a family drive. The car felt empty and light, and the day open in front of us. Midmorning, we stopped for coffee at an abbey and had a quiet walk in the grounds. A gentle leg stretch instead of a run to let off steam. We stopped again for lunch further up the road and had time for leisurely people-watching over another coffee. It felt like we were visiting the days before our kids were born or maybe the days ahead when they will have flown. A step out of time, one way or another.

Voices of wisdom

The library felt like that, too, when we arrived. It was a grand neo-gothic college-esque building with a plinthed statue on the lawn, and inside, everything was all old wood, leather chairs, shelved books, old and new, and quiet, quiet, quiet (See Spouse in photo above).

I chose a chair and sat down. Around me, the room felt full of quiet readers and focused writers. It was such a gift to be able to work immersively in that space, knowing my only interruptions would be breaks for tea or lunch or dinner and that when I needed a new book, a new voice, a different perspective, the shelves around me were full. I found Thomas Merton there, speaking solitary wisdom, and Jacques Maritain sharing pages with Rowan Williams. I lifted down a book and heard Flannery O’Connor reflecting on meaning and character. A walk to stretch my back, to clear my thoughts and there was Gladstone’s own copy of Blake.

I managed a week’s worth of work in that short weekend.

Katie’s Spouse in Gladstone library

Unbalanced

Coming home again, we listened to the radio and talk of shops closing and hospitals preparing for hard days ahead. The fields were greening with spring, and there were places where the river flooded, pooling bright wide mirrors on the farmland. I saw fallen trees, their roots in the air and birds perching there. A sense of unbalance hovered.

The lockdown started that week and, as we tried to get used to new rules and new ways, my thoughts kept travelling back to the library, my hours there feeling like scenes from another century. Days and weeks and months passed by.

Then last week, the library was in the news. A statement had been issued, but not about reopening. There’d been a petition. In the wake of the civil unrest in the States and, more locally, protests in Bristol which saw a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston toppled, there was a movement to remove Gladstone’s name from the library and his statue from the lawn. The statement was a surprizing response.

“At the core of our being, we at Gladstone’s Library believe that Black Lives Matter. We also believe that if there is the democratic will, after due process, to remove statutes of William Gladstone, our founder, we would not stand in the way. Nor, we think, would Gladstone himself – who worked tirelessly on behalf of democratic change.”

Renewal

The statement continued, acknowledging Gladstone’s father’s connection to the slave trade and explaining his own views on liberty, which evolved throughout his lifetime. The statement concluded with these words:

“At the library, we can always get better . . . and we will actively seek to improve everything we do through democratic and open conversation with our community in its widest sense.”

I might have expected a defensive rebuttal so was surprised instead by this openness to debate and democratic renewal. In the last few days, it seems like the public will about the statue has shifted, but regardless of what decisions are made, it’s inspiring to see an established institution so humbly open to change.

So that’s the story I wanted to share here – not just that old things can inspire and bring us rest and quiet, but that times change and we can grow wiser. We can grow kinder. Nothing old is precious if it is cruel, and, if we faithfully work and if we humbly listen, all things can get better.

  • Katie Munnik is an Ottawa writer living in Cardiff with her Spouse and three growing children.

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