easily one of the finest pieces of architecture in manchester city centre, the john rylands library on deansgate is a building which can be best characterised as a cathedral to learning. the grade I listed neo-gothic building, constructed between 1880 and 1899 stands not just as a memorial to the cotton magnate rylands, but also acts as a statement that manchester is, and has always been, a city which truly values the pursuit of knowledge.
commisioned by enriqueta rylands in memory of her late husband, the library building is not just striking as a beautiful example of architecture. this was also one of the first buildings in the city to be fully lit be electric lighting, which was generated on site. indeed, the library continued to generate its own power until the 1950s. electric lighting was judged safer for the storage of the rylands’ priceless collection than conventional gas lamps, with their obvious fire danger. whilst unconventional, this provision of electric lighting also led to one of the key interior highlights (pardon the expression) of the library – sumptuous art nouveau bronze light fittings.
the collection of the library is one of the finest in the uk, with over one million manuscripts and archival items forming the holdings. the collection is made up by the earl spencer collection, and the university of manchester’ special collection. amongst the highlights are a full collection of william morris’ kelmscott press works, a 1476 william caxton edition of chaucer’s cantebury tales and papers from john dalton, elizabeth gaskell and john wesley. however, the standout items are two biblical extracts – something of a sticky subject given that the rylands was built to stand apart from religion. the saint john fragment is believed to be the oldest existing new testament document. this in itself is impressive, though i am more taken by the fact that the library holds an original gutenberg bible. this is the text that revolutionised the dissemination of ideas, the birth of the printing press, and arguably the birth of the modern world. and a library 10 minutes walk from my house has one. amazing.
the john rylands library isn’t just a storehouse of historic documents though. whilst it does have some fantastic exhibtions spaces which elevate the holdings, this is still a working collection. the collection has free access to members, and the library has a 95% open membership policy – access to the most valuable works only comes with references of the importance of them to your research – a fair payoff in my mind. the historic reading room is also free to be used as a study space, and i a massively inspiring atmosphere to work in. throughout my masters degree i spent quite a few days researching in the reading room, lugging my own pile of books and papers over just to set up on one of the fine wooden desks in a alcove off the reading room, surrounded by historic texts, mind focused on getting work done.
whilst the john rylands library is part of the university, it is also very well rooted in the city of manchester. plans for a public lending library at opening never quite emerged, but since re-opening in 2007 the library is as much a public tourist attraction as it is a research venue. a series of well researched, thought provoking exhibitions such as the recent mapping manchester: cartographic stories of the city enter the historic reading room, whilst the permanent displays in the introductory and rylands galleries stand as a point of access for the general public to this historic institution. i’m also a big fan of the 21st century extension, which uses the ‘outside inside’ style of building ‘around’ the existing building, emphasisising the brickwork and windows of the historic library by countering them with pure white walls. i can’t help it, i’m a sucker for making the most out of an impressive space. don’t even get me started about the great court at the british museum…
i am constantly overawed by how impressive this library is, and it should be top of any list of manchester’s most significant architectural and academic wonders.