At Manchester Central Library

Harry Stopes

When Manchester Corporation launched a public competition to design a new library in 1926, the idea of a large, modern, purpose-built library in the city was more than two decades old. At the start of the 20th century it was proposed that an art gallery and library should be built on the site of the demolished Royal Infirmary in Piccadilly. ‘The working classes are daily becoming more important in our democracy,’ William Boyd Dawkins wrote to the Manchester Courier. ‘Have we given them equal opportunities of obtaining the higher knowledge which is within the reach of the well-to-do classes?’

But ratepayers were reluctant to fund the scheme, while the Manchester City News editorialised relentlessly on both the profligacy of the Corporation, and the uselessness of art and literature. The art gallery stayed on Mosley Street. The library on St Peter's Square, designed by Vincent Harris, was only completed in 1934.

The library was closed for refurbishment in 2010. It had hardly changed in eighty years; Neil MacInnes, the head of the council’s Library and Information Services, said it was difficult to navigate, impractical and ‘tired’. Most of the ground floor was taken up with cramped storage areas, with just a small hallway between the main entrance and the stairs up to the first-floor reading room. Around 70 per cent of the building was closed to the public.

Now the ground floor has been opened up, with a cafe, comfy chairs, touch screens and objects from the city's special collections on display. I went to the opening last Friday. There were a lot of schoolchildren there, as well as several dozen people who had been at the original ceremony in 1934. One of them was looking at a model of a back-to-back terraced house in Alpha Place, Deansgate, in 1853, described in a report by the Manchester and Salford Sanitary Association Visiting Committee. She was pulling at a little door with a question written on it: ‘How many people live in cellars?’ It was a bit stiff so I helped her open it. The answer was 38 per cent.

The main reading room on the first floor has hardly changed, however. (Or at least, not to look at: acoustic engineers have done a lot to reduce the echo.) It’s a huge round room under the central dome of the building. If anything, it’s less cluttered than it was before; there are no computer terminals, microfiche readers or index-card cabinets, just long wooden reading desks radiating from the central enquiry counter. It seats about 300 people.

Around the room, just beneath the dome, there's an inscription from the Book of Proverbs in gold lettering: ‘Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.’ I copied it down on the first page of my school planner when I was 16.

Local councils have little real power. Most of their activities are mandated by statute, and most of their funding comes from central government. Compared to their counterparts on the continent or in the United States, most of their policies end up being centrally determined, too. Cultural policy, public spectacle and big capital projects are among the few areas in which they can assert some autonomy.

Among other things, the council hopes that the library will contribute to the skills of Mancunians, and to local economic growth. Liberal capitalist managerialism has deep roots in Manchester. The Ship Canal, in which the Corporation was a majority investor, was supposed to bring in new trade and new industries. By 1906 the Corporation's role as part gallery curator, part CEO was being satirised in the local press. When the mayor led a group of distinguished guests around the meat packing warehouses at Salford Quays in the morning, and an exhibition at Heaton Park in the afternoon, one sketch writer reported:

From cattle pens to picture galleries, from butchery to the beautiful, from carnage to cloisonné ware, from gory roads to green fields, from the House of Death to the Mansion of the Living, from Mode Wheel to Heaton Park, was but a short ride on the elegantly-appointed but uncovered omnibus of the Corporation.

Such managerialism doesn't necessarily lead to bad results, and anyway the council has little room to manoeuvre. They seem to have got things broadly right at Central Library. Unlike in 1934 they won't be distributing handkerchiefs to every child in Manchester, as ‘that's a bit eighty years ago,’ MacInnes says. The handkerchiefs were printed with a picture of the library and the words ‘Knowledge is power.’ This time the council is giving my nieces and every other child in the city a library card.


  • 28 March 2014 at 12:28am
    Phil Edwards says:
    Most of the ground floor was taken up with cramped storage areas, with just a small hallway between the main entrance and the stairs up to the first-floor reading room.

    Not really. The ground floor was a large hallway (with some exhibition space), which opened onto a periodicals library on the left and the General Readers' library on the right. The big reading room on the first floor used to be reserved for the Social Science collection; if you wanted Language and Literature you needed to trek up to the fourth floor, where a huge collection was rarely disturbed by any readers (I went up there to read Arthur Machen, appropriately enough).

    The General Readers' collection used to be quite good, certainly up to the standard of a good suburban library; I remember borrowing Marina Warner's books on Joan of Arc and the Virgin Mary from it. They had a rethink around 2000 and took out anything that looked too highbrow, either sending it upstairs or selling it off; thereafter the non-fiction was organised in sections with headings like "Gardening", "Celebrities", "True Crime" and so on. (The temporary library on Deansgate, to be fair, was back at the level of the old General Readers', so perhaps that particular lurch downmarket was temporary.)

    I haven't been in since the reopening, but it sounds rather as if this new, larger, less cluttered first-floor space is replacing the old first-floor and ground-floor and fourth-floor libraries. Some of us were pessimistic when the library was closed; I hope we're going to be proved wrong, but I'm not optimistic.

    • 28 March 2014 at 10:52am
      Harry Stopes says: @ Phil Edwards
      I guess we could quibble about the size of the entrance hall - I'd still maintain it was small in comparison to the scale of the building - but it certainly is true that most of the ground floor was storage. Previously on the ground floor level all the central and back portion of the building, underneath the reading room, was closed off to the public and full of book stacks. Now it's nearly all opened up, apart from at the back, where there's the new archives/special collections search room.

      The reading room is now for reading only, there's no shelving in there. The periodicals and Henry Watson Music Library are on the 1st floor if memory serves, and there's more upstairs on the 3rd and 4th floors too, and a big expansion at basement level into the Town Hall Extension building - MacInnes told me that with the expanded footprint of the library there's "more material" on open display now than there was before, although I think that included things other than books.

      I think you should go and see it before passing judgement, to be honest.

    • 28 March 2014 at 7:20pm
      Phil Edwards says: @ Harry Stopes
      I will, and I didn't. I'm just worried that the revamp will continue a general drift away from the provision of books being seen as the core function of libraries.