Manchester Central Library, St Peter's Square, Manchester, M2 5PD – Visit Now
The doors of Manchester’s Central Library swing open on 22 March, 80 years after first letting in the public – & we’ve had a sneak preview.
It’s been four years since Manchester Central Library’s collection was loaded into lorries and packed off to a Cheshire salt mine. In that time, the 80-year-old doyenne of city book depositories has undergone a makeover like no other, thanks to architecture firms Ian Simpson Architects and Ryder Architecture, at a budget of near on £50m. Its iconic, E. Vincent Harris-designed neo-Classical curves have been refreshed to make Central Library the belle of the ball. The vision of the “world-class public square” in which the grade II-listed building sits is being realised, while the library’s inner beauty has been revealed with a sympathetic, yet entirely 21st-century, refurbishment.
The St. Peter’s Square entrance is currently still closed, so our preview tour begins via a secret portal in the Town Hall Extension next door and descends into a labyrinth of basement passages. The library’s archived material is kept somewhere along here, in six secure storage rooms – and apparently in the correct conditions for the first time. David from the Archives Team (usually the only people allowed in this section) shows off just some of the library’s treasures: 1846 playbills from Theatre Royal over the road, a hand-written Roman codex unearthed locally and an Elizabeth Gaskell first edition. Some of these will be made public in the impressive new Archives+ area on the ground floor, alongside interactive display units and touch tables in the open plan café. Here too, Here too, you can watch films in the BFI Mediatheque and North West Film Archive pods. “It’s all about stories,” says Head of Libraries and guide on this tour, Neil MacInnes.
This is a revamp that thoughtfully juxtaposes old with new
A swipe card flourish and we’re through the tradesman’s entrance and into the lending library. It has 110,000 items, a media centre, a unique black history collection (at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race
Relations Resource Centre) and a Secret Garden-themed children’s section. They particularly want to target children, young people and families, along with heritage tourists, explains MacInnes. This lower ground floor space has been designed to act as a seamless transition between the Town Hall Extension beneath Library Walk – which can be seen through panes above – into Central Library itself. The extensive use of glass throughout the building – along with enhanced lighting, wide staircases and new cream marble flooring – really has blown away the cobwebs.
But it’s not to the detriment of the original features. From Art Deco lamps, brass handrails, wooden carvings and the Shakespeare window above the entrance, to the intricate gilded clock and Scagiola columns (they’re hollow; give them a gentle knock) in the amazing domed Whispering Gallery of the first-floor Reading Room – everything has been painstakingly restored to its original glory. A 1930s staircase has been revealed in the refurbishment; original ceilings and floors see the light of day for the first time in years. The “heritage stacks” are now visible behind glazing – this is a revamp that thoughtfully juxtaposes old with new.
Two million visitors are predicted each year, double the numbers when the library closed in 2010. This makes sense when there’s so much on offer: as well as hosting the largest public music library in the country, there’s new exhibition and performance space, soft seating and 170 computers for public use spread throughout the building. “It’s the city’s study, but it’s also the city’s living room,” says MacInnes.
Compared to 70 percent of the space being hidden away pre-revamp, now 70 percent is accessible, including intimate study nooks and larger rooms on hire for meetings and functions – such as the beautiful wood panelled Heritage Room and the book-lined Chief Librarian’s Office. MacInnes had to give up his own outstanding vantage point, looking down the length of Oxford Street to the Palace Hotel. Still, he thinks it’s been worth it. “We’re offering the best of what museums and galleries do, but in a library setting – I don’t know anywhere else that does this.” And, well, neither do we.
Services and FacilitiesLending library, archive centre, BFI Mediatheque, cafe, children's library, music library, live music, live theatre, events
Commercial and hire servicesMeeting & performance rooms for hire