In Conversation with the Chair of Trustees, Michael Wheeler

In Conversation with the Chair of Trustees, Michael Wheeler

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Last month Gladstone’s Library welcomed in its new Chair of Trustees, Professor Michael Wheeler.

Just after his first Management Committee as Chairman, we talked to Michael to find out about his background, his involvement with the library over time and to get his first words as the new Chair “who just happens to have been around here for four decades…”

How long have you been involved with Gladstone’s Library and why this organisation as opposed to any other?

About 40 years ago, when I was a young lecturer in the English Department at Lancaster University, I heard about this place. My research is mainly on the impact of religion on the arts in the 19th century and so I came down here and wow, what a collection!

It was really the fact that Gladstone’s own books were in the areas that engaged me, and it was fantastic to discover that the library was also residential.  So I started coming and spending time here, became more and more engaged with it, and became a Trustee 21 years ago, when Peter Jagger was Warden.  In Peter Francis’s time I have become more involved with the development of policy.

The Library is unique. It’s the only Prime Ministerial library in the country, it’s the only residential library and people come here from all over the world. That creates a wonderful atmosphere.

There has always been a Gladstonian emphasis upon religion, history and politics. Alongside these, it’s quite clear that the literary side is becoming more important because we now have Gladfest, our hugely successful literary festival.  I was keen that we should declare ourselves to be a liberal institution and be looking hard at the question, ‘What is liberalism?’ (lower-case ‘l’), in a world where that question is not often asked.

There’s a real sense at the moment that the demographic of our visitors is widening, that we’re reaching more young people whereas traditionally it’s been mainly clergy and academics. Do you see this change?

Yes, and this is partly because the staff and interns are younger and can relate well to a younger readership. Sitting in the library as I do, it’s been interesting to observe the change over four decades in who’s sitting there.  

One of the joys of the place is the conversations you have here, over a coffee or over a meal, and the common room feeling you find.  It’s like a country house hotel in a way, where you can talk to an archdeacon or a student or a doctor or simply a reader, from anywhere in the world.

Gladstone’s Library is the scholar’s haven and a forum for debate and exploration. This word, ‘forum’ is the key to what we are. I think we can be a national forum where people gather to look at contemporary issues - political, religious and cultural – which are not often being aired in this country.

What are your views on how the library has changed over the time you’ve been here?

Gladstone’s was a residential library that was wonderfully stocked and looked after by the Warden, Peter Jagger, who was very much the Chief Librarian. What people forget is that there was also the training of mature ordinands going on: it was only men and that meant the whole atmosphere of the place was different. In what is now the café, the refectory had a long table with the Warden at the head saying grace at the beginning of the meal. And it had the feeling of being somewhere between a theological college and a private school - quite formal.

The great change really is that Peter Francis has brought it into the new millennium and it’s now really engaged with contemporary culture. The change of name was the crucial thing - changing from St Deiniol’s to Gladstone’s Library - which upset some people of my generation and older, but it was the right decision because it made us focus on what Gladstone himself represented as our greatest Prime Minister and a liberal. And what we’re trying to do is relate what Gladstone was about and what the 19th century was about, to the 21st century and to the re-exploration of some of his values today.

Without development a place will not thrive: there has to be creative change without losing a sense of where we have been. The word ‘tradition’ is often used in a rather conservative way but actually the Latin ‘tradere’ just means to hand down, and what is actually going on is that the Gladstonian tradition of learning, what he called ‘divine learning’, is handed on to us as Trustees, and to everyone who uses the house. We’re handing on what Gladstone gave us to the next generation. That’s why it’s so good to see younger people coming and doing their own work and their own thinking under the umbrella of these values.

And why should people come to Gladstone’s, why shouldn’t they go to a different library or retreat house?

Because it’s unique, because there’s nowhere like it. I know a lot of libraries throughout this country and in America, and this is the only one of its kind. It’s the only one with a quarter of a million books at one end of the building and 26 bedrooms at the other.  And what an exciting time to come, with a big development programme in the offing and the prospect of new facilities in the making.