On the Road with Reading Sheffield

By Margaret B

I recently spent a few days in Italy, in the city of Bologna.

One of Bologna’s nicknames is ‘Bologna la Dotta’ or ‘Bologna the Learned’, as it houses the oldest university in Europe. So maybe it is not so surprising that Tripadvisor has a list of the ten best libraries to visit in Bologna alone!

Given the dire state of repair of our own central library in Sheffield and the effect of severe central government funding cuts over a decade, I was pleasantly surprised to see that one of the top libraries in Bologna is in fact its central public library – the Biblioteca Salaborsa. And I’m happy to report that it looks to be in a perfect state of repair!

Palazzo Leoni – Biblioteca Salaborsa (by an unknown author. From Wikimedia Commons)

The library is housed in a beautiful, historic building near to the Town Hall in Bologna’s central square, Piazza Maggiore. The building has been a fortress, a botanical garden, a basketball and boxing arena, a trading centre, a restaurant, a bank and a puppet theatre during its 2000+ years of life. The public library is one of the best in a city of libraries, not just because of its stunning home but also the quality and quantity of its books. The public can walk in and admire its spectacular central atrium, reading rooms, lecture theatres and exhibitions. There are even 1st century Roman remains in the basement, which are also open to the public to wander around freely.

The central atrium of the Salaborsa (image courtesy of Margaret Bennett)
The reading room of the Salaborsa (image courtesy of Margaret Bennett)

The public library has been in Salaborsa for 22 years but the first library open to the public in Bologna, the Aula Magna, was opened in 1756. It was a gift of Pope Benedict XIV. Its original walnut shelving holds 50,000 texts from the 16th to 18th centuries. Now part of the University Library, it is still possible to visit it on certain days, though sadly not when we were visiting the city.

We all say we value public libraries but I do wish we could follow Bologna’s wonderful example and put our money where our mouth is!

Sleeping over in a library

By Margaret B

When a friend mentioned she was going to stay for a few days at Gladstone’s Library in North Wales, we naturally invited her to write about it.

Have you ever wanted to have a sleepover in a library? Do you love the dusty smell of old books, paper and leather and the hush of researchers deep in thought, only interrupted by the occasional quiet rustle of papers and scratch of a pencil?

Reading Rooms

If so, Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, Flintshire, North Wales, seven miles from Chester, is well worth a visit. The UK’s only prime-ministerial, and Wales’s only residential library. the Library was founded by the four times Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone. He bequeathed his collection of 32,000 books to the nation – apparently he’d only read 22,000 of them! He even transported them himself, from his home a quarter of a mile away from the library – by trundling them across in a wheelbarrow! That must have been quite a few trips!

The library now has 80,000 books and 70,000 papers and journals: many of the books have Gladstone’s own copious annotations still in them. It is particularly strong on 19th century history, theology, politics and literature, but it also holds modern collections, several special collections and archives ranging from the British Crime Writing Archive (including the records of the Detection Club) to the archive of the Movement for the Ordination of Women! It is recognized as the most important research library in Wales after the National Library of Wales. 

The Library also hosts talks, conferences and writers-in-residence and it has its own literary festival, Gladfest

The current building dates from 1902 and was designed by John Douglas. It was funded by public subscription and is now Grade I-listed. As well as the Reading Rooms, there are 26 bedrooms (mostly en suite), a comfortable lounge full of leather armchairs and novels, a chapel and a café. Notable guests include Alan Bennett and A S Byatt. It has been calculated that over 300 published books have been started, finished or worked on in the Library. 

The Library’s Grade I-listed home

But you don’t have to be a writer: anyone can come and use the Library and stay in the beautiful building. It is open to all – writers, students, researchers and anybody looking for peace and quiet. There are no TVs in the bedrooms but books everywhere and each room has its own Roberts radio and writing desk. The staff are very helpful and welcoming and good food is available in the café and bistro. Rules are kept to a minimum, except for sensible ones relating to the use of the collections. It quickly comes to feel like home! 

Working in your room with just the radio and books for company

As Gladstone had wanted, the Library provides ‘books for readers without books and readers for books without readers’. And a peaceful place to read, write or just think. 

Before you ask, yes, we are deeply envious of Margaret. There even seems to be a friendly cat.