Friday, 18 April 2014

Manchester Central Library...

The grand exterior of Manchester's Central Library
To start with a confession: 

Despite living in Manchester as a student for 3 years, I only visited the central library once during that time. Don't get me wrong.. I liked the building - on the outside it loosely resembles the Pantheon in Rome and it provided something of an oasis (no pun intended) in the bustling centre of town. It's just that with one of the largest student populations in Europe (over 100,000 according to Midas) we were spoilt for choice when it came to finding places to study in the city. These include the labyrinthian John Rylands University Library - now complemented by the Alan Gilbert Learning Commons. Then there was the other John Rylands Library - an amazing neo-gothic building  (pictured below) in the heart of trendy Deansgate. So, all in all, I next to never felt the urge to venture into the rather outdated echo chamber that was the old central library during my time at Uni. 

Stairway at John Rylands, Deansgate
What strikes you first of all when you enter the new building is the amount of space available now. Only 30% of the building was in public use back in my day (..over a decade ago now - yikes!) whereas now 70% is accessible to the public. The comparisons with Liverpool's Central Library (which reopened last year) are obvious, not least on account of their architecturally similar grand circular reading rooms. Much like the great football rivalry, you get the sense the city was keen not to fall too far behind its Merseyside neighbours; in this case by providing its residents with a flagship library building it could be proud of. In common with other large central library buildings which have opened in UK cities in recent years (Newcastle, Cardiff and Birmingham to name a few) this is also a library building bursting with life and engagement. 

There are a several areas of activity dotted throughout the building's four main public floors, including business and employment services, a media lounge, a "Secret Garden" childrens' library/play area and electric pianos which users can plink away at!

Exhibitions include some of the miscellanea the library has collected over the years, from locker handles to 80 year's worth of the sweet wrappers which were found stuffed down the seats of the old study spaces!

*Check out this fab BBC News School Report which gives a good overview of the building's key features!*

Reading Rooms: There are obvious comparisons to be made between
Manchester Central Library (above) and Liverpool Central Library (below)

One for the archives


The captivating Archives+  area includes a BFI Mediatheque
As soon as you enter  the new building through the exquisite main Shakespeare Hall, you are greeted by the sight of a large sign saying 'Archives' and find yourself  to be irrevocably drawn towards the vast array of interactive displays held within this space. It was refreshing to see the city's archive being given such a prominent place in the library. All too often library archives are an area hidden away in a dusty corner and typified by old library equipment; serried ranks of microfiche readers, map cabinets and slide projectors. Here in Manchester there is a very modern vibe, with touch screens, a unique virtual book stack and a hanging circular LED display scrolling live messages and feeding tweets received by @MancLibraries, all adding to the Sci-Fi/Tardis-like feel of the space.



Archives+ is full of eye-catching exhibits, for instance a model of a typical Mancunian tenement building, complete with video blogs about the lives of those who occupied these residences (below, left). A giant digital map in the middle of the room also allows visitors to pinpoint the sites of major historical landmarks within the city and to read stories about the major events which have shaped the city, ranging from the writing of Manchester's first Charter, through creation of the Manchester Ship Canal to the trauma of the 1996 IRA bombing.



One of many interactive exhibits at Archives+
The Media Lounge at Manchester City Library
which inhabits the basement of the new building
The basement area is not accessible to the public but includes some 35 miles of materials in this, the 2nd largest public library in the UK (the Library of Birmingham being the biggest). The building is connected via the underground City Library to Manchester's civic hub - a one stop shop for council services and enquiries, with Connexions also providing information and advice for youngsters. On the wall there is a sign stating, "No matter who you are or where you are from, Manchester is and always will be, yours". As a final thought (before I departed for Manchester's celebrated Curry Mile) I could not help but hope the same will always be true of our public libraries.

Manchester is a city which always makes you feel welcome!

The new Manchester Central Library frontage at night.
Lost in Literature exhibit at John Rylands, Deansgate

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