The Manchester Central Library – a community hub in neoclassical surroundings

Written by Concetta La Spada, library tourist from Cambridge

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In early July, I visited Manchester for the CILIP Conference. I had never been to Manchester and, during my free time, I could visit this city of such important history for the UK. During the Industrial Revolution Manchester became the main source for the production of cotton textiles. It is impossible to forget Richard Arkwright and the innovations he has brought to the textile industry, with using steam engines for the first time, which brought a spread of cotton mills throughout Manchester itself and in the surrounding towns. 

I couldn’t certainly miss visiting the Manchester Central Library.

It was opened in 1934 by King George V, its magnificent neoclassical building reminded me of the Pantheon in Rome. It contains amazing collections, such as: The Gleave Bronte Collection, containing works by the Bronte Sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell and De Quincey; the Theatre Collection, with works all related to the history of Theatre in Manchester’ the Alexander Ireland collection, with works collected by Ireland who was managing partner of the Manchester Examiner and a book collector who formed friendships with many leading British writers of the day – William Hazlitt, James Leigh Hunt, Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charles and Mary Lamb. 


The inside of the library is as spectacular as the outside. In 2014 the renovation works started in 2011 were complete and today the library is one of the finest cultural centres of the city. I could not help but see how many people, from students to families, were using its facilities. On the ground floor, there is the main exhibition area, café’/reading room and local history archive. Under the ground floor there are four floor of steel book stacks providing 35 miles of shelving, the equivalent of millions of books. With digital resources becoming more and more prominent there are people that could think that such a space won’t be used. But I am not so sure of that. Even if digital resources are more widely used, print resources still remain strong and many readers still prefer them to digital ones. 

Photo courtesy of Michael D Beckwith

Going up to the first floor, I was amazed by the beautiful statues and antique decorations. If the ground floor was pure modernity, going up I felt I went back in history. This beautiful statue is called “Reading girl”, sculpted by Giovanni Ciniselli, it was brought from Italy by Daniel Adamson, the first chairman of the Manchester Ship Canal Company, and given to the library by his family in 1938. Apparently there is a bit of mystery surrounding what she is writing but I think that makes it even more special. 

Statue Manchester

On the first floor, there is the beautiful Wolfson Reading Room, with doors opening all around it. When you walk outside of it, if you peek through each door you have the impression that it is a different room every time. It is a peculiar effect. 

The Architecture of the library from Harris to Ryder

The architect who first built the library was Emmanuel Vincent Harris, a native of Devon. In 1927 he won the competition to build the central library in Manchester. Reading about his life was extremely interesting. Born in Devonport in 1876, he studied at the Kingsbridge Grammar School and then moved first to Plymouth and then to London working for various architecture firms. In London, he passed the exams to access Royal Institute of British Architects in 1900. In 1903 he won the Royal’s Academy Gold Medal and the travelling Scholarship. That same year, he established his own firm and began to participate in competitions: one of his most famous wins was the competition for Glamorgan County Hall in Cardiff. 


The victory of the Manchester Central Library competition, was the results of a long period of travelling and study. He went to the United States in the early twenties and was influenced by the American neo-classicist architecture. The American influence did not stop at the external architecture of the library but also contributed to a radical difference, from all the other British libraries, in the internal layout. In fact, the original internal layout was based on the American library system. As we know, within this system the majority of the books is hidden from readers and rest has to be requested. In the British system it is the other way around, with all the books on display. In 2014, Ryder Architecture, a London firm, unveiled the new Central Library, which refurbishment was set to solve many issues, including all the ones related to its American-influenced internal layout. 

Originally the Library needed four levels located under the Central Reading Room, to hold all the books hidden from the public. These stacks sustained supported structurally speaking the floor above but were an impediment to the clarity and flexibility the new architectural film, Ryder, wanted for the Library. So these have been removed and replaced, in the structure, by a new steel frames and the ground floor under the Central Reading Room is a completely new area, where people can circulate and read.

It is incredible how, different library systems, and their use, can influence and change the shapes of libraries. For years there was an “American” library in the centre of Manchester!

The Library today

The library hosts many kinds of events. From helping with computer sessions to intellectual property clinics, from National Careers Service sessions to Code club classes for children. And let’s not forget the Library Theatre Company. It is such a fascinating story!

It all began in 1952 when a group of actors used the basement of the Library to rehearse for ‘The Importance of being Earnest’ by Oscar Wilde and it continues nowadays with productions that have also been brought to the West End, London, and other cities. It shows that the power of libraries and what people can create within them can go beyond what their creators thought of.

In the last few years cuts have been befallen many of the libraries in the Manchester area, consequently they had to be run by volunteers and opening hours had to be reduced. The Central Library has fortunately be spared the worst, and its influence on the community has not been diminished. This could happen because the role of the Library has remained central and because the counties in the ten years before 2017 has received from the government and investment of £75 million, including £50 million specifically for the Manchester Central Library.

I look forward to my next visit in Manchester when I hope to be able to use more of the Library’s facilities and speak with librarians and users.



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