Visit Central Manchester’s Collection of Impressive Libraries

A library may not immediately come to mind when thinking of the most invigorating setting for an afternoon activity, particularly with the diminishing resources and funding that is being funnelled away from many a local variety, and the resulting scarcity of decent options to visit. Yet, upon reflection a library is a veritably versatile catchall, as diverse as the community it represents. A library is not only an inclusive educational establishment, a portal to a world of escapist fiction but it a living vestige of the history of its area. It is in these regards that Manchester City Centre is particular rich when it comes to its Libraries. Manchester has a host of destination-libraries, each of which not only provide a safe hub for intellectual pursuits, but an enriching insight to Manchester’s cultural past. In this article, I recommend some of the most profound and worthwhile libraries to visit when in Manchester.

Chetham’s has Music and Social Revolution at its Heart

Chethams Library courtyard

The first library on my list is not only a stunning example of Tudor Architecture in Manchester City Centre but is forever cemented as a part of global political history. Chetham’s Library, situated in Chetham’s Hospital, along with the world-renowned Chetham’s School of Music, was established in 1653 under the will of Humphrey Chetham and stands as Britain’s oldest free public reference library, which is still open to readers and visitors free of charge. However, the social weight of the library comes not from its status as an independent charity but from it being the setting that begat the Communist manifesto. Indeed, Chetham’s Library was the meeting place of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels during their tenure in Manchester and signifies the City as one monumental in international political thought, and the following change it begat. Whatever your political leanings, one cannot deny the profound experience of being able to sit in the very window seats the two would meet and write in, or engage with the economics book that Marx was reading at the time, displayed on a shelf in the library.

Chethams Library reading room

However, as a reference library, a visitor is also able to benefit from the collection of over 100, 000 books, 60,000 of which were published before 1851. Although the library is wholly free and inclusive, readers and researchers must book an appointment at least one business day in advance of their visit. Visitors are also able to book a tour by contacting the school directly. I recommend Chetham’s Library for those interested in a quiet but staunchly ambient setting to soak up the Manchester’s cultural history, whether it be through it’s political associations or by its impressive collection of manuscripts. Chetham’s Library is an oasis in a bustling city, only rather than cascading with clear waters, yields bountiful knowledge and a refined sense of calm.

Embrace Victorian Gothic on a Grand Scale with the John Rylands Library

John Rylands Library building

Unlike Chetham’s Library, John Rylands’ architecture stems from a comparatively modern architectural era. John Rylands Library is a neo-gothic masterpiece, built in 1900 and is based in Deansgate in Manchester. Perhaps what is immediately striking is that John Rylands Library is a visual feast and is a stunning example of the Victorian taste for the gothic-revival, wherein medieval styles were recreated in a quickly modernizing world. The exterior is a beautiful monolith, and its façade is dually imposing and intricate, with an embattled parapet, gothic arches and delicate carving, a throwback to the triumph of the architectural antique in a period of industrial boom. Although the library was founded by Enriqueta Augustina Rylands in memory of her husband, whom gives the library its name, it is perhaps now best known as an integral part of the University of Manchester Library, since its merger in July 1972. That isn’t to say the library isn’t open to the public however, in fact John Rylands is too a free library, and is a perfect destination to anyone whom appreciates rousing environments that boast an unrivalled collection of history. For instance, the John Rylands’ special collections are considered to be among the largest in the United Kingdom and contain several medieval illuminated manuscripts, early printing collections, amongst specialist literature from the University’s respective departments.

John Rylands Library main reading room

What is perhaps the best reason to visit John Rylands Library however is to take in its magnificent main reading room. Truly, there is perhaps no more inspiring a setting to sit and read in Manchester. To visit the goliath of a space is as if one were to visit an alternative reality wherein cathedrals had study days. The expansive setting is characterised by long tables placed beneath stained glass clerestory windows and being watched by various marble statues, of religious and secular figures. John Rylands really is a numinous environment and is a treat for those who want their libraries on an epic scale when in Manchester.

Step through the Door to a Classical Past with the Portico Subscription Library

Portico Subscription Library front entrance

Unlike the last two libraries, the Portico Library is a subscription library, which charges an annual fee for membership. Yet, like the previous two, the Portico is notable for its impressive architectural style. Filling the triumvirate of popular European antique styles is the classical. It is in the classical style that the Portico brings a take on the Ancient Greek villa to Manchester’s Mosley Street.

The Portico Library was built between 1802 and 1806 by Thomas Harrison of Chester and so bridges the creation of Chetham’s and John Rylands. A Grade II listed building, the Portico was designed following a meeting of Manchester businessmen whom wished for an institution which ‘united the advantages of a newsroom and a library’ yet emulated the similar environment of the ‘Athenaeum’ in Liverpool, a gentlemen’s club which too evokes the antique style. Thankfully, the Portico is no longer gender-exclusive yet is perhaps is more exclusive when it comes to affordability. Membership isn’t cheap and although subscription rates range from £56 (for a young person, classed from 18-25 years of age) to up to £180, the advantages of joining include borrowing rights from the library’s collection (which reflect the interests and intellectual endeavours of the nineteenth-century and includes travel literature, biographies and novels including historical editions of Charles Dickens, Bulwer Lytton and Wilkie Colllins), access to the reading room, Cobden area and Reading Corner. Although the other libraries on this list allow you to do things of a similar nature for free, the Portico is perfect for someone looking for authentic an historical setting that is intimate and evocative of a private little haven in the City Centre. The Portico is like a time capsule in a charming centre that reflects the classical world and the Georgian sensibilities that were inspired by it.

Portico gallery space

The Portico also boasts its own gallery space, which unlike the library is free and open to all. So, if you’d like to take in the beauty of a building with a five-bay colonnade of Ionic columns, before checking out its current exhibition and settling down with cake and coffee, then rest assured you can do so without the cost of membership.

Manchester Central Library; as Versatile as it is Monumental

Manchester Central Library building

The final library on my list is too in the Neo-Classical architectural style and is only a stone’s throw from the Portico, set in St Peter’s Square. Manchester’s Central Library however, is wholly free to use and rather than finding inspiration from classical Greece is loosely based on the Pantheon in Rome. The Pantheon itself may inspired from its Hellenistic predecessors, but needless to say, provides a continental level of awe to the city centre architecture. However, rather than being a temple for all the gods, Manchester Central Library is a temple for erudition and the godly efforts of it’s renovation. Although the building was original deigned by E. Vincent Harris and constructed between 1930 and 1934, it went though a well-documented and intensive four-year refurbishment from 2010-2014. This £50m revamp has ensured that a building that was once 70% inaccessible is now 70% accessible. Across various floors there exists a café and restaurant, several computer suites, the Henry Watson Music Room, the British Film Institute Mediatheque, and the Business and Intellectual Property Centre, a decidedly modern space that is designed to help locals establish and grow their own businesses. Some of the more valuable highlights of Manchester Central’s incredible include Shakespeare’s Second Folio from 1632 and a handwritten copy of the Codex Justinianus, a 12th-Century code of Law compiled for the Roman Emperor, Justinian. One can also entertain children at the Library’s adorable Children’s section, themed on the Secret Garden by local author, Frances Hodgson Burnet. One can also satisfy teenagers with the gaming area, an interactive media suite, fully equipped with the latest gaming consoles.

However, my favourite room is the Wolfson Reading Room. Echoing the circular, coliseum-like setting of the Library, this room is large yet intimate, where each of the many desks has a private lamp that makes one feel as they are in an arcane study of yesteryear. With a heavily scholarly atmosphere and acoustics that punish any loud chattering, the room is the perfect platform for time to tic away as you are lost in pure concentration, or lost in people watching.

In short, Manchester has many astounding libraries that offer insight and respite from the hustle bustle of the City Centre. Manchester is abundant in its beautiful yet pertinent libraries that compliment urban living with a step back to history and a step towards a quiet space for clarity and tranquillity. I recommend any of the libraries on this list not only for lovers of culture, history and architecture but for someone whom finds themselves in Manchester and would like a particularly enriching way of taking a break, or a respectively calmer thing to do.

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