Who needs libraries when you’ve got the Internet? For some people, the two things are mutually exclusive. Not for Manchester.

A library is a place. The Internet is…well, you know what it is. You’re reading it. But you can’t walk to the Internet. You can’t push open the doors and be there.

Libraries are a real connection in a virtual world. Real people, services and books. Real history, archives and manuscripts. Real everything. They’re a public space, a sanctuary, a resource and they’re not after your money…unless you want to use the photocopier.

Manchester loves libraries. Here are a few crackers.

John Rylands Library, Deansgate

Some libraries are so special, they attract more visitors just to look at the building than people who actually borrow books. John Rylands Library is one of those places.

Opened to the public in 1900, the library is a memorial to the late John Rylands commissioned by his widow, Enriqueta. The neo-Gothic architecture, the red sandstone, the vaulted ceilings, arched windows and crypt: John Rylands Library is Manchester’s cathedral of knowledge.

It was advanced too. It was the first building in Manchester to use electric lighting. It also had a very clever filtered ventilation system. Let’s be honest, late Victorian Manchester wasn’t famous for its clean air.

The library today is a very welcoming place. The purpose-built visitor centre is like a shaking of hands between old and new.

The Portico Library, Mosley Street

Libraries are about sharing knowledge. The Internet and smartphones have made that easy for us, but 200 years ago, information was hard to come by. People had to find things out for themselves.

So, in 1802 a group of Manchester businessmen decided to open a library and money was raised through local subscriptions. They built “the most refined little building in Manchester” and The Portico Library opened in 1806. It’s still there, doing its thing, in the same building, all these years later.

As well as a unique collection of treasures, The Portico Library is open to the public and still sharing knowledge through talks, exhibitions and an online Quarterly. They also serve some very nice snacks.

Working Class Movement Library, The Crescent

Some of the best libraries in the world owe a lot to private collectors. These are the people who obsessively collect materials for their favourite subjects and become experts. Sometimes it’s a private passion. Sometimes it’s for posterity.

It’s most impressive when a collector recognises the value in things that seem worthless to everyone else. Take political leaflets, for example, handed out at a protest. A few are kept, some get caught in the wind, most are thrown away. But if that leaflet was written by a Suffragette and kept safely for 100 years, then it takes on national importance.

This is why the Working Class Movement Library is so special. Archives, books, pamphlets, posters, placards - the once personal collection of Edmund and Ruth Frow documents more than 200 years of struggle and progress.

The whole collection was given a new home by Salford Council in 1987. It’s still there and open to the public.

Central Library, Manchester

What do we expect from a good city? A grand train station? An imposing town hall, museum or gallery? Maybe a main public square, platz or plaza? What about a cool library? Defo. Any city worth its salt needs a cool library.

When Manchester’s Central Library opened in 1936, it instantly won a place in Mancunian hearts. Its Pantheonesque design made for a popular landmark and countless old friends and courting couples have rendezvoused there.

Today, Central Library is in great shape after a big refurb. There’s a nice café and the circular main reading room is as gorgeous as ever. But first and foremost, alongside the style and grandeur, Central Library is a working public library. Open to everyone and all welcome.

Chetham’s Library, Long Millgate

Lovely old wood. The floors, furniture, shelves and cabinets. Everywhere. Creaky, crooked wood; aged to a deep dark brown after centuries of use by borrowers, readers and scholars. This is what you’ll find at Chetham’s Library. And books, obviously.

The library interior dates from 1653. To put that into context, that’s when Oliver Cromwell was Lord Protector. There were still outbreaks of the plague, for goodness sake! Chetham’s Library was already old even when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels first studied there in 1845.

So, is it easy to believe that this is the UK’s oldest surviving public library? Absolutely. It feels like a time machine - like you can’t be sure which era of Manchester’s history will be waiting for you when you step outside. Time travel, anyone?

Around the region

Whenever people want to make the world a better place, they start building libraries. They’re a force for good and don’t just belong to the city.

The first ‘unconditionally free’ public library in England belongs to Salford Museum and Art Gallery. It opened in 1852 and it’s still there. The library is now dedicated to local history.

Number One Riverside is coolest new address in Rochdale. The award-winning building is light, spacious and energy-efficient. It houses multiple council departments under one rainwater-capturing roof. Not least, a lovely new library.

Stockport’s main library was paid for by Scottish-American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie. That’s the same generous fella who built New York’s Carnegie Hall and around 3000 other libraries around the English-speaking world.

Oldham Library and Lifelong Learning Centre is a brilliantly-equipped, very modern library with state-of-the-art facilities. The sign at the entrance sums it up perfectly, ‘A place for people and ideas. All are welcome.’

At the southern end of Bolton’s Le Mans Crescent, two grand sandstone columns stand either side of a proud entrance. What’s inside? Bolton central library, the art gallery, aquarium and newly-renovated museum.

Opened in 2012, the award-winning Wigan Life Centre is the focal point of several public services and leisure facilities. It’s right in the town centre and a new library (with separate children’s and teenage libraries) takes up a considerable chunk.

There are two libraries to look out for in the near future. The new Altrincham Library in Trafford is all new for 2019 and will run an innovative self-service system over weekends and evenings. The new building is hard to miss thanks to the Eudaemonium: the giant new book sculpture outside.

Also in 2019, Tameside central library in Ashton will be moving to ‘Tameside One’, a once-in-a-lifetime redevelopment in Ashton town centre.

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  1. Rosy
    Interesting, thanks

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