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Library Service History

Although libraries in some form or other can be traced back over 2,000 years before Christ, public libraries as we know them today first appeared in the second half of the 19th century. The establishment of public libraries was one aspect of a general movement for better educational facilities and opportunities from around 1850 onwards.

The first public library in Aberystwyth came into being almost by accident and one of the Powells of Nanteos, C E I Powell was, unknowingly at the time, to play an important role in establishing a library. It all started in 1871 when Mr Powell of Nanteos offered his large and valuable collection of paintings to the town council on condition that the council provided a suitable room, gallery or museum to house them. In order to do this the council would have to adopt the 1855 Public Libraries Act but there was no intention at this stage of establishing a public library. A public meeting was then held at the Town Hall on 6th December 1871 and it was at this meeting that the idea of providing a library rather than an art gallery or museum was put forward for the first time. The Town Council adopted the idea and decided its policy would be to provide a library and an art gallery. The biggest supporter at the meeting was the Reverend E 0 Phillips, Vicar of Llanbadarn Fawr. He saw the library as a great power for good which would help to change the habits of the young people of the town.

There followed a bitter dispute between the Town Councillors concerning the location of the library and art gallery with some in favour of the Town Hall and others in favour of the Market Hall. Mr Powell then gave an ultimatum that if everything were not resolved to his satisfaction by lst August 1872 he would withdraw his offer. The arguments and the wrangling continued and the date passed without anything being done. Mr Powell withdrew his offer and the pictures and museum were lost. But not so the public library because the decision to back a public library remained.

There followed a period of inactivity and during this time the Aberystwyth Observer and the Cambrian News especially, played a major role in arousing and maintaining interest in the idea of having a public library in Aberystwyth. In the autumn of 1873 pressure was growing on the Town Council to site the library at Compton House, Pier Street. It was finally decided in April 1874 to occupy the premises and the first ever public library in Aberystwyth was opened in Compton House, Pier Street on 13th October 1874. The first librarian was Edward Hughes. The library consisted of a mere two rooms and it was reported that the library was well used with the books in continuous demand but that they were in a very poor condition.

In 1882 the library was moved to the Assembly Rooms which were leased to the council for twenty-one years. Ironically George Powell, Nanteos, owned them and over the years he had donated hundreds of books to the library and left money in his will to purchase new books. He obviously was not a man to bear grudges! Mr Hughes, the librarian, died in 1886 and was succeeded by John Jenkins. When he died eight years later in 1894 his daughter Miss M A Jenkins succeeded him.

The 21-year lease of the Assembly Rooms expired in 1903 and the council decided to move the library back to Pier Street, this time to the Old Banking Library at the corner with Eastgate. The library, however, did not remain in Pier Street for long, for about this time Andrew Carnegie, the millionaire philanthropist gave £3,000 to build a new library. A Public Library Sites Committee was formed and finally a site in Corporation Street was recommended. A competition was held with a prize of 30 guineas to see which architect would design the new library. Forty-eight plans were submitted and the winner was Walter Payton of Birmingham. David Davies, Llandinam, laid the foundation stone in July 1905 and on Friday, 20th April 1906 Mrs Vaughan Davies, wife of the local MP, formally opened the current library in Corporation Street.

In 1909 Miss Jenkins, who had been librarian at three different sites - the libraries in the Assembly Rooms, Pier Street and Corporation Street - resigned on her marriage and T B Hall was appointed librarian. He was librarian for nine years and following his death in 1918 another Mr Hall was appointed, this time W R Hall.

Also in 1918 the Cardiganshire Rural Libraries were established with the aid of the Camegie UK Trust and a Central Repository was set up at 56 Portland Street. There now existed a County Library (the Cardiganshire Rural Libraries), and a Town Library (the Aberystwyth Public Library). In 1925 tentative attempts were made to amalgamate them followed by another attempt in 1931 but nothing came of these. W R Hall resigned as librarian in 1931 after thirteen years in the post and he was succeeded by Rhys Jones.

In 1947 the Town Library and the Cardiganshire Rural Libraries were amalgamated to form the Cardiganshire Joint Library with the whole County Library transferred to the Town Library in Corporation Street. Ivor Davies, a London Welshman with roots in the Tregaron area, was appointed to be the first librarian of the Joint Library in 1947. He decided to make a fresh start and to try and set the foundations for the future. He recognised the need to make it easier for country people to borrow books. The County Council could not assist him financially but money was made available by Mrs Alban Davies of Llanrhystud and the first mobile van appeared in the county. It was also the first in Wales. There were also a shortage of staff and Ivor Davies appealed to the National Library for help and Alun R Edwards was released 'on loan' to the Cardiganshire Joint Library. Ivor Davies was starting to get the library organised but sadly in October 1949 he died suddenly at the age of 36.

Alun R Edwards was appointed librarian and started on his work on lst January 1950. Over the next quarter of a century he was to revolutionise the Cardiganshire library services and with his vision and pioneering work he transformed and expanded the role of the library and made it much more than a place to borrow books. Among other things the mobile library scheme was expanded to cover the whole of the county, book discussion groups were set up, book quizzes were held throughout the county, the first cassette library was established and a compilation of talks on Welsh life past and present made. He also played a major role in setting up the Welsh Books Council and the College of Librarianship.

During this time the lending library at Aberystwyth was enlarged in 1958 and the house next door was acquired ten years later. With reorganisation in 1974 libraries came under the control of Dyfed County Council. Alun R Edwards was appointed as the Dyfed librarian and was to remain in this post until his retirement in 1980. John Richards was appointed in 1974 as the Area Librarian for Cardiganshire with responsibility for the Aberystwyth Public Library and the other libraries in Cardiganshire. Mr Richards, was to remain in the post for nearly five years years until his untimely death in 1978.

Geraint Lewis was appointed Librarian in 1979. A native of Ynysybwl near Pontypridd but now living in Llangwyryfon, Mr Lewis first joined the staff of the Aberystwyth Library in 1970. He has recently published Geiriadur Gomer i'r Ifanc, the first ever Welsh dictionary for young people.

The year 1996 has seen the wheel turn full circle and Aberystwyth Public Library is now back under Ceredigion County Council. Geraint Lewis has been appointed Assistant Director of Education and Community Services responsible for Libraries, Museums and Archives with William Howells who has been deputy to Mr Lewis since 1982 appointed County Libraries Officer.