The other day, I and some folks from CILIP North West were treated to a tour of Chetham’s library, situated between Urbis and Manchester Cathedral. I must admit I didn’t know a great deal about Chetham’s beforehand, other than that it is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, and some other little titbits that can be summarised as it being a very old, very beautiful library.
Being a fan of such things, I jumped at the chance, even leaving a riveting lecture on organisational culture early. My lecturer decided to spend five minutes telling an anecdote about a previous job and I just happened to have to leave part way through her story. Satisfying.
The stroll I took through the city to get to the library was very enjoyable in its own right; Manchester was cold and crisp, with the late afternoon sun casting long shadows and throwing a golden hue onto whichever surfaces were tall enough to catch it. The Christmas Markets had opened that day in and around Albert Square, and it was lovely to have a quick look as I went past.
It reminded me that Manchester is a wonderful city at this time of year. Sure, it gets as busy and suffocating as any shopping city in the run-up to Christmas, but everything else is just very enjoyable.
I got to the library just in time to say hello, and to confirm if I could take photographs inside.
The tour was very entertaining and enjoyable. Our guide struck a nice balance between being informative and amusing, and never veered into boring territory. He seemed proud of the collections, and had many quips and stories pertaining to old traditions, the library’s place alongside the School of Music, and Manchester in general – as well as his mild obsession with books dealing with death.
The place oozes history. You can’t walk down a hallway or glance at shelving or sit on a chair without feeling its many centuries of age. So many of the fixtures and fittings are either original or merely very old. Indeed, very little of the library is ‘modern’, and the whole place has a very satisfying consistency in terms of decor and style. We were told, in fact, that a lot of the furniture spans many hundreds of years in styles, but it still all looks appropriate.
We were told many interesting things about the ‘mechanics’ of the place: for example that the books are mostly sorted in size order for reasons of practicality. One librarian attempted to get the collections sorted in Dewey order, but for a library of this kind, such an effort is futile.
The library is very dark inside. Old lead-lighted and stained glass windows offer an eery, pleasing light – but at levels far below that necessary for reading and writing. Indeed, even with the aid of electric light, it wasn’t hard to imagine visiting the library a century or more ago – nor to understand how in the winter months all those years ago, the library would usually close around 2pm.
Of interest to many was the staggering list of names of its users through the past. Karl Marx was a particular highlight, with his favourite location being easily identifiable, and that ever-present connection with the past making it so believable and alive.
A personal highlight was talk of the Leech collection, a vast archive of diaries, scrapbooks and photographs spanning a couple of hundred years of one family. There is a staggering amount of material held on this family, and it’s a wonderful resource. With my personal university project on how and why we keep diaries, I was especially fascinated to hear more about it.
It was a lovely tour and I’m glad I’ve finally been able to visit the place. It turns out you can just pop in any time, but it was especially good to be given a guided tour by someone so knowledgable and enthusiastic.
For more information on visiting Chetham’s library (and a lot more), head over to their website: http://www.chethams.org.uk/visiting.html
You can see some more of the photographs I took on my tour in this Flickr photoset.