From those crusading Victorians who maintained that the working man (and woman)’s route to self-betterment led through books and education, we inherited our love of libraries. Manchester’s crazy about them. We’ve got four (count’ em! Four!) significant libraries in the city centre and each one is well worth a potter around – especially recommended for book lovers, architecture lovers or the intellectually curious.
Our 80-year-old Central Library has just undergone a £50 million, four-year makeover. Everything from the domed reading room to art deco lamps and brass handrails has been painstakingly restored to its original glory. But it doesn’t feel like a museum – the radical re-imagining of the space has seen City Library installed in the basement and a space-age archives plus interactive centre installed on the ground floor (it resembles a TARDIS). There’s also a welcoming café and great facilities for children. Two million visitors are predicted each year, double the numbers when the library closed in 2010.
While Central Library might be the most prominent book repository in Manchester, it’s hardly the oldest. That title belongs to Chetham’s Library, a medieval marvel that is the nation’s most ancient lending archive of books, maps and photographs. Hidden away between Manchester Cathedral and the music school that shares its name, the library was founded in 1653, which is old enough – but the building dates back to 1421. It is here that Marx and Engels researched much of the material that would inform their world-changing works (including the Communist Manifesto); Chetham’s is now something of a Mecca for left-leaning tourists, but continues to be an active lending library.
Manchester’s private-but-open-to-the-public Portico Library was established in 1806. The city’s earliest Greek Revival building, it was designed by the celebrated architect Thomas Harrison. Its collection of around 25,000 books on travel, history, biographies and fiction reflect the mindset of the Georgian and Victorian members who set it up – people like John Dalton (who pioneered atomic theory), opium eater Thomas de Quincey and footballer-poet Eric Cantona. Inside, a great domed gallery is surrounded on all sides by mainly 19th century volumes. Members sit at mahogany tables, researchers leaf through 200 year-old books and – perhaps best of all – tea and cake is served to all comers. In fact, the gallery is open to the public every day, too, and is a regular venue for events and exhibitions.
The John Rylands Library never fails to impress. Sure, it may front onto one of Manchester’s most traffic-choked streets (hello, Deansgate), but this red sandstone Neo Gothic marvel could stand anywhere and still stop traffic. Although it is easy to wax lyrical about the 1899 building itself, its collections are just as impressive: Over 250,000 items are stored here – spanning five millennia – alongside a further one million manuscripts that include preserved papyrus fragments and an original Gutenberg Bible. There are regular exhibitions and events too, but, really, just to stand in its glorious Reading Room, surrounded by books, stained glass and statuary, is one of the greatest thrills of literary Manchester.
Taking in Salford, our four libraries become five with the Working Class Movement Library, whose archives document 200 years of the organisations and campaigns of ordinary men and women. A very special place where Manchester actor Maxine Peake is a hands-on and active patron.