Eighty years after first letting in the public, the giant wooden doors of Manchester Central Library swing open again on Saturday 22 March. Sarah-Clare Conlon gets a sneak peek beyond the neo-classical columns at a public building fit for modern life.
It’s been four years since Manchester Central Library’s collection was loaded into lorries and packed off on vacation to a Cheshire salt mine. In that time, the 80-year-old grande doyenne of city book depositories has undergone a makeover like no other, thanks to architect firms Simpson and Ryder, at a budget of around £50m. Those E Vincent Harris-designed iconic neo-classical curves have been refreshed to make Central Library the belle of the ball when the vision of the “world-class public square” in which the grade II* listed building sits is realised, while its inner beauty has been revealed with a sympathetic yet entirely 21st-century refurbishment and remodel.
The St Peter’s Square entrance is still closed when I visit, so I’m led via a secret portal in the Town Hall Extension next door and down into a labyrinth of basement passages, somewhere along which the treasures and archived material are kept in six secure storage rooms, apparently in the correct conditions for the first time. David from the Archives Team (usually the only people allowed in this section) shows me some 1846 playbills from Theatre Royal over the road, a hand-written Roman codex unearthed locally and an Elizabeth Gaskell first edition. Some of these will be made public in the impressive new Archives + area on the ground floor, alongside interactive display units, touch tables in the open plan café, a BFI Mediateque showing films restored onsite by the North West Film Archive, a whole section dedicated to geneology… “It’s all about stories,” says my guide, Head of Libraries Neil MacInnes.
A flourish of swipe cards and we’re through the tradesman’s entrance and into the lending library, complete with 110,000 items, a media centre, a unique black history collection and a Secret Garden-themed children’s section. They want to particularly target children, young people and families, and heritage tourists, explains Neil. This lower ground floor space has been designed to make a seamless transition between the Town Hall Extension, beneath Library Walk, which can be seen through panes above, and into Central Library itself, and, as I discover throughout the building, the extensive use of glass – along with enhanced lighting, wide staircases and new cream marble flooring – really has blown away the cobwebs.
But it’s not to the detriment of the original features. Art Deco lamps, brass handrails, wooden carvings, printmaking artifacts, the Shakespeare window above the entrance, the intricate gilded clock and Scagiola columns (they’re hollow – give them a gentle knock!) in the amazing domed Whispering Gallery of the tranquil first-floor Reading Room – everything has been painstakingly restored to its original glory. A 1930s staircase has been revealed in the refurbishment, original ceilings and floors see the light of day for the first time in years, the “heritage stacks” are now visible behind glazing; the revamp does thoughtfully juxtapose old with new.
Two million visitors a year are predicted – double when the library closed its doors in 2010 – but then there’s so much on offer: as well as one of the largest public music libraries in the country and an extensive Information & Business Library in partnership with the British Library, there are new exhibition and performance spaces, Wifi, soft seating and powerpoints throughout, and 170 computers for public use. “It’s the city’s study, but it’s also the city’s living room,” says Neil.
And compared to the 70% of space hidden away pre-revamp, 70% is now accessible, including intimate study carvels and larger rooms to hire for meetings and functions, such as the beautiful wood-panelled Heritage Room and the book-lined Chief Librarian’s Office. Neil had to give up his outstanding vantage point looking the length of Oxford Street to the Palace Hotel. Still, he thinks it’s been worth it. “We’re offering the best of what museums and galleries do, but in a library setting – I don’t know anywhere else that does this.”
Manchester Central Library will reopen Monday - Saturday from Saturday 22 March 2014. http://www.manchester.gov.uk/centrallibrary