I walk under wooden beams and in between timeworn bookshelves. The scent of book dust is everywhere, and the sound of creaking erupts from the floorboards at every step. It’s nearly 10pm at Gladstone Library, and the doors to the Theology Room are about to be locked. Tiptoeing down a refurbished spiral staircase, I pen down the time next to my name on a sign-out sheet kept on the reception table and quietly leave. I walk through a turquoise corridor, past paintings and small statues. Up some stairs and down another hallway (this one bare and minimalist), I stop outside door number seven. Inside, one-dimensional books await me in the form of a beige feature wall. Here is where I will stay the night.
Gladstone Library is the UK’s only residential library. This unique concept has sparked the curiosity of hundreds of people and is what the library is best known for. With 26 residential rooms, the library itself includes cosy reading rooms, a cafe, comfy common room, and much more. Furthermore, if rooms are available, you can stay in the library for as long as you want. With reading rooms such as the Theology Room open from 9am to 10pm, it’s certainly not a surprise that they receive so many guests throughout the year. However, during my time here, what did surprise me was how happy and helpful everyone was who worked there. Differing from your average office job, working at a residential library must be an extraordinary experience. Working here seems like a dream to me, and during my visit, I want to be able to find out more about it.
The decision to go to the Gladstone Library was made spontaneously late last month. One of my best friends, Jordan, also decided to adventure out with me. We drove from Birmingham to Hawarden, Wales, early in the morning and arrived at the Library around 9am. The first thing that I noticed upon arrival was how much smaller it was than I expected. After weeks of imagining walking through its corridors, I had created a much larger building in my mind’s eye. Nevertheless, it didn’t disappoint me. Far from it.
Jordan and I check in at reception, where a smiling, soft-spoken man hands us an information booklet and map. He explains that although we can’t check into our room until 2pm, we’re allowed to walk around the grounds as much as we want. And that, we do. We find our way to cushioned sofas, coupled with ruby coloured curtains and rugs in the common room. This room is named after William Gladstone, the prime minister who created the library. Throughout my time here, I notice that he is in every part of this library- and not just in name. Statues and paintings of the Liverpudlian prime minister are scattered about the place, all of them placed in loving memory.
We nestle ourselves into the worn sofas until it’s time for a Glimpse Tour. These tours (as per their name) last around 15 minutes to introduce residents and locals to the site. A brief history is clearly recited by an intern: Gladstone was one of the most influential prime ministers in Britain and spent a lot of his time reading.
“It’s been said that Gladstone was an avid reader and would read at least 300 books a year!” the young intern smiled enthusiastically, a sparkle in her eye and hands waving eagerly as she spoke. “That’s almost one book per day! It’s also been said that once he’d started the construction of his library, he undertook a lot of the labour himself. At 80 years old, Gladstone carried books in a wheelbarrow between this library and Hawarden Castle, which is half a mile away!”
Another five minutes of facts and we go into the History Room. There is something I failed to mention earlier- this part of the tour is silent. For the next 10 minutes, we study the History Room in utter silence. Meanwhile, other people situated on small desks between bookshelves still work as we walk around. This may seem awkward, yet it only adds to the Library’s effect. Our guide stands in a corner of the room, ready to answer any hushed questions as we all meander around the room, silently picking up books and gawking at the bookshelves high above us.
Ancient publications stand on differently sized bookshelves, their covers intricately detailed. Some have scales etched into the leather, whereas others have flowers or significant symbols of a past gone by. In the middle of the room stands a small display cabinet, holding some of Gladstone’s personal items, including a shaving kit, inscribed axe and match holder. After our 10 minutes are up, a small game of Chinese whispers occurs throughout the tour group to notify each of us to leave. Back outside, the intern thanks us for our attention, and we are allowed to roam the library freely once more.
Without a doubt, the Theology Room is by far the best room in the entire library. A small reception desk stands by the thick, wooden doors, where two women sit cheerfully. One of them is the tour guide, who quietly welcomes us back and instructs us on how to sign in. She whispers like an excited school girl to her friend, who types away every now and then, silently giggling at her counterpart. I’ve worked as a receptionist before, and never had the type of connection this pair seem to have: r
Sneaking up a spiral staircase, the upper layer of the reading room leaves me speechless. Small wooden desks sit between large, plentiful bookshelves, ornate lamps standing to attention on each one. Oval lights shine down onto each desk from the ceiling, creating a focused spotlight on the comfortable, ergonomic chairs and wicker bins. In other words: it’s the perfect workspace. I rush over to one and gently lay out my novels on the desk, impatient to feel fully immersed in my own studies.
It’s as I sit down, taking in the library atmosphere and gazing at the range of different people who sit across from me, that the words of Amy Sumner, the Marketing Manager for Gladstone Library, pop into my head: “The Library attracts a really broad mix of people who come for a range of reasons. We get writers, researchers, clerics, bloggers, academics and people just looking to stay somewhere a little different. I love that my role involves meeting and talking to these people every day.”
I had interviewed Amy a couple of weeks before my arrival, keen to find out an insider’s view of the Library. When she first started working here, she lived at the Library for two months in order to accommodate herself, however now only comes in for work. As we exchanged emails, she was amazingly helpful and passionate about working at Gladstone Library.
“I don’t think the Library is ever what anyone expects, and it’s certainly far exceeded what I hoped for. Because the team is very small, we all wear about 10 different hats in our roles and day-to-day can find ourselves doing anything from showing people around to changing a bed! The role (as Marketing Manager) has allowed me a lot of freedom and creativity and that, along with the fast-paced nature of it is what keeps me motivated and enthused.”
Looking across the room I can understand how she can be so positive and impassioned about Gladstone Library. Bookshelves nine shelves tall cover the walls, with barely any space to show. Everything about this room feels more comfortable than educational. It doesn’t feel like a school or another academic or professional setting. In contrast, it feels more personal. I wondered if, after working here for nearly four years, Amy felt connected to the Library in any way.
“I’ve certainly learnt a lot about William Gladstone and nineteenth-century politics! But I think all of us feel a real responsibility for not only the collections contained within the building, but what the Library is and stands for, and continuing to convey and share that message with people.”
With one more long, loving look at the room in front of me, I finally look down at my novels and begin to read. The turning of ageing pages and the tap of keys on laptops are all that can be heard. Alike the numerous volumes kept within the chipped shelves, I feel lost in time. All these books had once been touched and transported by Gladstone himself, and that fact now seems a lot more fascinating after listening to the staff here. I had barely been at Gladstone Library for five hours and already knew that I could happily stay here forever.
Gladstone Library is nestled in Hawarden, Flintshire, with the reception being open from 8:45am to 9pm every day. Locals and visitors can visit the reading rooms through Glimpse Tours, which commence at 12pm, 2pm and 4pm. Residents can use the reading rooms from 9am to 10pm. Rooms start from £69 per night, with all-inclusive breakfast. You can find out more here.
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