“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 invited, or perhaps more appropriately tempted, to undertake a voyage of discovery. The object here is not to be comprehensive on any one topic but to encourage further investigation.
“The library is like a series of windows,” says Neil, “where you can look onto vast fields of human knowledge. The Archives section of the library gives onto resources within the library or onto other institutions in the city, such as museums or other libraries or art centres, or information further afield or digitally stored.”
As I walk around the idea of the library as a thoroughfare for the adventurer in knowledge becomes ever more insistent and the happy joining of past and present seems effortlessly executed by a refined and thoughtful aesthetic. I can’t help remarking to Neil that having visited the library before refurbishment, I am astonished by the transformation, and encouraged to see how the library has responded to change and technology, and continues to deliver a fantastic service for the citizens of Manchester.
“Customer focus has been at the heart of the process,” replies Neil. “Before refurbishment we had a 70-30 split where 70 percent of the library was hidden from customer view. We have reversed that. Now you can visit, see, hold, consult 70 percent of the library’s resources. We have backed up building-wide wi-fi access with a media lounge offering access to industry standard software. A BFI resource offering a diverse collection of British film and television, including unique material relating to Manchester, is an integral part of the archive section, and the Business and IP Centre is an active and fertile area that encourages business and innovation with experts on hand to help people realise their commercial potential.”
There’s also the children’s library which is in the new extension joining Central Ref with the City Library, an ongoing project which will transform the civic space of St Peter’s square even further. Children evidently love it and with due Mancunian pride the area is themed around The Secret Garden by local author Frances Hodgson Burnet. Animals pop out on a digital wall display to take you by surprise and you can ‘walk in the garden’ with the aid of cleverly devised projections.
For me, the part of the library that best illustrates innovation allied to respect for the past is the Henry Watson Music Library. Refurbishment has liberated the fine architectural detail from behind layers of superimposed walls and fittings to create an open, elegant space housing one of the country’s finest music collections.
Here you can borrow from the vast collection of printed music and books on music, consult a wide range of music periodicals with historical back runs and collected editions, compose your own music using the library’s dedicated composition computers, DJ on a mixing desk, use the collection of instruments to learn to play the piano or the drums, strum a tune on the guitar or jam with your friends.
“It happened only the other days as I was walking around the building,” comments Neil. “A group of kids were chatting away and suddenly they just struck up, playing together, improvising. It was fantastic. But we are not only opening up to the future. There’s the past as well. Since refurbishment we have been able to display many of our valuable and rare archive manuscripts.”
However, Neil saves the piece de resistance till last. I had caught a glimpse of it on the ground floor as I stared up through the glass ceiling onto an ornate clock suspended as if by magic above my head but now I was about to enter the library’s Reading Room.
Neil is eager to point out that the silence as I enter this remarkably harmonious space is self-regulated. No ‘Silence’ signs are required – people know. He goes on to point out the building’s unique acoustic. If someone as much as whispered on the other side of this domed, circular space you would know. You can literally hear a pin drop.
Reading rooms with their air of study and concentration allied to learned elegance are the heart of many libraries and this is certainly so with Central Library. Here learning is worn with lightness and joy. What a wonderful place to study!
Before I leave I have to ask Neil about the figures. Are they hitting targets after completing one of the most remarkable refurbishment projects I have witnessed?
Neil points to a large group of school children that have just left an activity room on the ground floor after a visit to the library. They are gathering into a line to walk back to school. They are well behaved and smiling. We agree that says a lot, about the success of the new library and about its future.
“Kids love it, parents love, we all love it. Manchester Central Library is a cultural destination in its own right. We’ve had 300,000 visitors in the first three months, 10,000 new library members and 50,000 items borrowed. That’s a success story.”