The John Rylands Library, on Manchester’s Deansgate, has never seen as many Tories as it does in the film about Winston Churchill, Darkest Hour. Apart from the Historic Reading room, the original men’s toilets is also made good use of, where Neville Chamberlain defies library rules by using the loo to take his morphine.
Enriqueta Rylands’ impressive chunk of neo Gothica opened in 1900 as the people’s library, though it was the acquisition of Lord Spencer’s Althorp Collection that truly made the Ryland’s book collection special.
Deep within the vast Special Collections is the Grafton Portrait, hoped (rather than thought) to be Shakespeare, a Gutenberg Bible (or Mazarin Bible or 42-Line Bible), which was the first consequential Western book in the ‘Gutenberg Print Revolution’ and is one of the world’s most valuable in more ways than one.
One of my favourite trinkets is a letter written in the meticulous hand of Charles Dickens, to Elizabeth Gaskell, and its quite a thrill to be a mere leap in time away, from both inkwell and hand that crafted some of the most spectacular descriptive fireworks in any language.
It’s ironic that in her day, Enriqueta Rylands negotiated with neighbouring buildings to get the heights restricted, so as to allow sufficient light into the windows to furnish avid readers, though plans currently on the table would see buildings across the road on Deansgate at least double in size and dwarf this jewel in the Mancunian crown.
For me, the John Rylands Library building is the most impressive of Manchester landmarks and for atmosphere alone it should be at the top of your things-to-do list. As inferior architecture rises on all sides, like Scrooge’s ghosts of Christmas future, this place stands as both testament to supreme craftsmanship, and also to the lofty intentions of someone with a few quid to spare.
It is worthy of note that, although the University of Manchester was made custodian of the library in 1972 (in the days before higher education became a questionable business model), anyone can use the Historic Reading Room and also view the collections – Enriqueta Rylands opened it for you, whoever you are, and that ethos remains.
The Historic Reading Room is also a great place to study, but get your seat early at exam times – there’ isn’t a great deal of room, particularly as (speaking of business models) a few years ago the custodians shifted some of the study tables into the foyer shop and have never been replaced. Oh, and if you’re in my favourite seat, there will be trouble.