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From generation to generation – the ‘jewel in the city’s crown’ – Manchester Central Library continues to inspire

In the centre of Manchester stands an iconic city landmark, designed by the visionary architect E. Vincent Harris.
Manchester Central Library

Manchester Central Library continues to captivate the city’s residents with its beautiful architectural design.

Central Library is the second largest public library in the UK and effortlessly blends the old and new

Here are eight interesting things you might not know about the Manchester institution.

We explore the interesting history of Manchester Central Library, and how it continues to inspire and inform today.

Manchester Central Library

Manchester Central Library
The Midland (L) and Manchester Central Library (R)

First opened on July 17, 1934, the library has become a symbol of knowledge, culture, and architectural grandeur.

Manchester holds the distinction of being the first local authority in the United Kingdom to provide a public lending and reference library, thanks to the Public Libraries Act of 1850.

The Manchester Free Library

The Manchester Free Library, established in 1852, laid the foundation for the city’s enduring love affair with learning.

Over the years, the library found new homes, moving from Campfield to the old Town Hall on King Street, the former outpatients wing of Manchester Royal Infirmary, and even an old YMCA hut.

Architect E Vincent Harris

In 1926, the Manchester City Council launched a competition to design an extension to the town hall and a central library.

E. Vincent Harris, an accomplished architect known for his mastery of classical design, won the commission and embarked on the creation of a masterpiece.

Harris drew inspiration from libraries in America and the timeless architecture of the Pantheon in Rome.

His circular design for Manchester Central Library, featuring a columned portico attached to a rotunda domed structure, captivated the city’s imagination.

On May 6, 1930, the library’s foundation stone was laid by Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.

Manchester Central Library opening date

Way back when.

On July 17, 1934, Manchester Central Library opened its doors to the public, radiating a sense of grandeur and permanence.

The library quickly became a beloved landmark, captivating the minds of students, lovers, and the city’s residents.

King George V, in his opening speech, hailed the library as a symbol of education and leisure, offering magnificent opportunities for the city’s inhabitants.

The library’s circular shape and unique girders caught the public’s attention, with families coming to “gawp” at its construction.

The iconic portico, known as “The Ref,” became a popular meeting place and a testament to the library’s enduring legacy.

Anthony Burgess at Manchester Central Library

It was revealed by the Anthony Burgess Institute that this library was a popular place for Burgess to come and write, including when he wrote his magnum opus, A Clockwork Orange.

The library collections include over 30 incunabula (books published before 1500) and many first and early editions of major works. The special collections include:

The Gaskell Collection – works by Elizabeth Gaskell, one of the most important writers to have lived and worked in the city

The Theatre Collection – a record of the history of theatre in Manchester

The Henry Watson Music Library – one of the largest public library collections of sheet music, named after the Mancunian musician and composer Dr Henry Watson (1846-1911) who bequeathed his collection to the library. It was officially opened in 1947 by Sir John Barbirolli.

The Newman Flower Collection of Handel Manuscripts – was acquired from the estate of Sir Newman Flower by the Henry Watson Music Library in 1965. This library of rare manuscripts had originally been collected by Charles Jennens, a close friend of George Frederic Handel, and was later held in the collection of the Earl of Aylesford. It contains works by Handel, as well as items of Italian music from the early 18th century, including concerto partbooks of the Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi. Notably, the collection also includes several previously unknown violin sonatas by Vivaldi, autographed by the composer, which are now known as The Manchester Sonatas

The Renovation of Manchester Central Library

In 2010, Manchester Central Library faced challenges that necessitated essential renovation.

Asbestos problems and the need to maintain its structural integrity prompted a temporary closure.

The library embarked on a remarkable four-year, £50 million refurbishment project, embracing the past while embracing the future.

The result was a harmonious blend of historic charm and cutting-edge design.

On March 22, 2014, the library reopened its doors to the public, offering a redesigned interior that seamlessly connected with Manchester Town Hall.

The renovation project, delivered by Laing O’Rourke, received accolades for its complexity and its commitment to schedule and budget.

Today, Manchester Central Library stands proudly as the second-largest public lending library in the United Kingdom, continuing its mission to foster knowledge, culture, and community.

The library’s collections are a testament to its rich history, housing treasured works like the Gaskell Collection, celebrating the legacy of Elizabeth Gaskell, and the Henry Watson Music Library, boasting one of the largest public collections of sheet music.

The Library Today

Alongside book lending services, the library houses a special jungle-themed children’s section.

You’ll also find a media centre, a unique black history collection (at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre) and the largest public music library in the country here.

The library also offers lots of events for families as well as a fantastic exhibition and performance space.

With comfy seats and lots of computers you can use, Central Library is a real jewel in Manchester’s crown.

With its timeless architecture and commitment to progress, Manchester Central Library remains an enduring symbol of Manchester’s devotion to education and intellectual growth.

The library stands not only as a repository of knowledge but as a living testament to the enduring power of learning and the vital role it plays in shaping a community and city.

Header photo credit: @manclibraries / @andymallins

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