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St Deiniol's Library aims to unite faiths

Sir William Gladstone's statue in the ground of St Deiniol's Library, Hawarden
Gladstone's statue... Sir William started St Deiniol's with his own book collection

By Alys Lewis
St Deiniol's Library plans to open an Islamic reading room to promote understanding between different faiths.

In the centre of the Flintshire village of Hawarden is an impressive red brick building - Britain's only purpose-built residential library.

St Deiniol's Library, which is open to anyone who wants to use it, is also home to a massive collection of books owned by a previous prime minister.

St Deiniol's Library
The library's 250,000 books are available to anyone to use

At the heart of the library's collection are the 33,000 books amassed by William Ewart Gladstone over the course of his life. As library Warden Peter Francis explains, Gladstone was a voracious reader.

"If you add up in his diary the books that he read every day it comes to over 22,000. He owned 33,000 books so he didn't quite read everything he had," he said.

"Of those 22,000 books about half of them have detailed annotations in them so it wasn't a casual reading, it was a thorough reading."

Gladstone established the library in 1894 towards the end of his life, a life of remarkable achievement.

Gladstone was Prime Minister four times, and he was Chancellor of the Exchequer delivering 13 budgets. He was in parliament for 62 years.

"He really bestrides the whole Victorian era," says Peter.

As he became older, Gladstone wanted to share his collection of books and decided to set up a library.

He could have established his library in Oxford, which he had links with, or London, but he was of the opinion that such places were already well served so he set up his library in Hawarden to serve the people of north Wales.

One of the main areas that Gladstone read was theology and religion. He embraced the support for other denominations.
Peter Francis, Warden

Peter describes how the library started: "Gladstone persuaded his family to let him build a tin tabernacle and, aged 82, he packed up the books at Hawarden Castle (the family home), put them in bundles, and helped by one of his daughters and a member of staff, he trundled them along the path from Hawarden Castle to the tin tabernacle and set them up on shelves there.

"When he died it was thought that a leaky corrugated iron hut wasn't a suitable place for the great man's books so the present building, which is Grade I listed, was built as the national memorial for Gladstone, and it has 30 bedrooms at one side and now it houses 250,000 books at the other side, with Gladstone's core, original collection mingled amongst the books."

'Counter disinformation'

The library has had some famous visitors over the years including the entertainer Timmy Mallett whose father studied for his ordination at the library in the 1960s. Timmy continues to support the library's fund raising efforts.

The 2009 marked 200 years since the birth of Gladstone and one of the projects to mark the anniversary is the foundation of an Islamic reading room.

Said Peter: "We thought if Gladstone was alive now that as a person of faith and as a pragmatic and humanitarian politician he would be hugely concerned with the perceived gap in understanding between Christianity and Islam.

"He would do everything to counter the hatred, bigotry, disinformation and misinformation that we receive about Islam and that Islam receives about us."

Peter said: "There are a lot of Islamic centres in Oxford, Cambridge and London and so on for the university level. Here at St Deiniol's we have totally open access.

"Anyone can come to use our books and anyone can come on the courses and what I want to do is try and approach the sort of level underneath the strictly academic so everyone can begin to come and find out about Islam and the other subjects in our collection."

The library is currently raising funds towards making the reading room a reality.

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