“Welcome to a city in love with libraries.” The words of Neil MacIness as he greeted me in the Shakespeare Hall of the recently refurbished Manchester Central Library.
As Director of Libraries, Neil has overseen an impressive library regeneration programme across Manchester. At the programme’s heart was the £50 million restoration of one of the UK’s truly iconic buildings, first opened in 1934 and now, once again, a symbol of civic pride.
With many prestigious new-build library projects in cities around the world, Manchester City Council took the different approach of refurbishment and restoration of their existing Central Reference Library. The result is a remarkable new library that keeps all that people loved about the old building while adding functionality that addresses customer needs well into the century ahead.
In fact, such an approach highlights, even more than the new-build, the changing role of libraries in communities while re-asserting core values about the democracy of knowledge and the value of information in maintaining that democracy. The history of Manchester Central Library tells that story.
It is little wonder that Manchester City Council chose to stick with their existing, classically proportioned city centrepiece. Mancunians, as Neil says, love their libraries. The city was one of the first ever to establish a public library after the Free Libraries Act was passed in 1850. Charles Dickens was at the opening of the Manchester Free Public Library in 1852 where he said:
“In this institution, special provision has been made for the working classes, by means of a free lending library… this meeting cherishes the earnest hope that the books thus made available will prove a source of pleasure and improvement in the cottages, the garrets, and the cellars of the poorest of our people.”
The building moved twice before the St Peter’s Square site was chosen for the current library. A competition for the building’s design was won by E. Vincent Harris, a municipal architect with a passion for Classical architecture. He produced a building that has been compared to Emperor Hadrian’s Pantheon in Rome and described as revealing ‘a creative and original modern spirit’ and being ‘[a] confident, assured and bombastic essay in the Roman Imperial manner’ while locals referred to it as the ‘Corporation Wedding Cake’ or the “St Peter’s Square Gasometer’.
The foundation stone was laid by Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald in 1930 and the library was opened by King George V four years later, who said at the time:
“In the splendid building which I am about to open, the largest library in this country provided by a local authority, the Corporation have ensured for the inhabitants of the city magnificent opportunities for further education and for the pleasant use of leisure.”
Having worked in and visited many libraries in America, I couldn’t help making a further comparison with libraries I knew of, such as the Library of Congress.
“Absolutely,” says Neil, “Harris knew these libraries down to their structural components and was influenced by them. And this is something that we did, too, when considering the refurbishment of Central Library. We visited iconic modern-day libraries, such as Denmark’s National Library, the Black Diamond, Malmo City Library, Amsterdam Central Library and the wonderful New York Public Library and the relatively new Central Library in Seattle.”
‘Openness’ is a key feature to the new library, openness to ideas, to people, to other areas and institutions in the city and further afield. This is also reflected by the fact that the refurbishment increased the number of public access points into the library from one door to seven.
To begin my tour, Neil takes me into what appears to be the library’s nerve centre, the lively, colourful and high-tech Archives section on the ground floor.
Instantly, the symbolic value of the circle becomes apparent. A central core radiates out into themed arms on topics such as ‘radical thinking’, ‘industry and innovation’, ‘place’ where you are invite