built in 1806, the portico library is one of the finest examples of neo-classical architecture in manchester, with it’s looming greek colonnades dominating the front of the grade II* listed building on moseley street.why is it that so few people have ever stepped foot in the place then? could it be something to do with the fact that said entrance actually takes you into a not-that-bad-actually-pub, with the library having a modest entry to the side? or something to do with the rumours about private membership and that visitors are unwelcome? i popped in for a while to soak up the atmosphere and felt immediately welcomed by the building, the librarian, and the library members.
the library was initially founded to provide a public newsroom, lending library and reading room for the city, and the thomas harrison designed library did just that. yet in 1920 the building was partitioned, moving the library into the upstairs space whilst a bank moved in downstairs (yes, the one that the pub is named after). for me, the main wrongdoing of this was that it seemingly restrict access to the library, which is one of the most beautiful spaces in the city. the expansive dome, decorated with victorian stained glass, pours lights into what is now the gallery space, festooned with books.
where public libraries often live on their presentation of bright, new paperbacks with flashy covers being on immediate display, the portico smacks you in the face as you get to the top of their stairs with a statement of intent. look around this massive room. look at our collection. it’s old. it looks great. we’re good at this book business. the walls are lined with huge bookcases, and as far as the eye can see well worn volumes sit, waiting for use by the members. the portico’s collection dates mainly from inception in the nineteenth century, with around 25,000 books from this period complemented by an ever expanding contemporary collection which the members of the library have a say in choosing.
however, the collection of the library is in need of some care. based in the heart of industrial manchester, the atmosphere of the city itself was a hazard to the books. quite a chunk of this collection, which captures a key moment in the development of modern manchester, struggled to cope with the industrial atmosphere which rendered many of the bindings illegible and pages brittle. there is even an admission from the library that gas lighting and the smoking of members will have contributed to this damage. an active policy of care and repair, which has been in place since 1981, means that the books are slowly but surely being returned to their former glories, matching the resplendence of the room within which they sit.
initially the library was limited to 400 male card holders, but in time expanded. there is still a private membership policy, and new members must be introduced by an existing member, though the librarian will seek to arrange introductions to further the access to the portico’s holdings. former members include the former chairman and anti-slavery campaigner john ferriar, anti-corn law league founder richard cobden, novelist elizabeth gaskell, prime minister sir robert peel, author thomas de quincey and the lexicographer peter mark roget who is thought that have started work on his thesaurus whilst working in the portico.