At Manchester Central Library
When Manchester Corporation launched a public competition to design a new library in 1926, the idea of a large, modern, purpose-built library in the city was more than two decades old. At the start of the 20th century it was proposed that an art gallery and library should be built on the site of the demolished Royal Infirmary in Piccadilly. ‘The working classes are daily becoming more important in our democracy,’ William Boyd Dawkins wrote to the Manchester Courier. ‘Have we given them equal opportunities of obtaining the higher knowledge which is within the reach of the well-to-do classes?’
But ratepayers were reluctant to fund the scheme, while the Manchester City News editorialised relentlessly on both the profligacy of the Corporation, and the uselessness of art and literature. The art gallery stayed on Mosley Street. The library on St Peter's Square, designed by Vincent Harris, was only completed in 1934.
The library was closed for refurbishment in 2010. It had hardly changed in eighty years; Neil MacInnes, the head of the council’s Library and Information Services, said it was difficult to navigate, impractical and ‘tired’. Most of the ground floor was taken up with cramped storage areas, with just a small hallway between the main entrance and the stairs up to the first-floor reading room. Around 70 per cent of the building was closed to the public.
Now the ground floor has been opened up, with a cafe, comfy chairs, touch screens and objects from the city's special collections on display. I went to the opening last Friday. There were a lot of schoolchildren there, as well as several dozen people who had been at the original ceremony in 1934. One of them was looking at a model of a back-to-back terraced house in Alpha Place, Deansgate, in 1853, described in a report by the Manchester and Salford Sanitary Association Visiting Committee. She was pulling at a little door with a question written on it: ‘How many people live in cellars?’ It was a bit stiff so I helped her open it. The answer was 38 per cent.
The main reading room on the first floor has hardly changed, however. (Or at least, not to look at: acoustic engineers have done a lot to reduce the echo.) It’s a huge round room under the central dome of the building. If anything, it’s less cluttered than it was before; there are no computer terminals, microfiche readers or index-card cabinets, just long wooden reading desks radiating from the central enquiry counter. It seats about 300 people.
Around the room, just beneath the dome, there's an inscription from the Book of Proverbs in gold lettering: ‘Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.’ I copied it down on the first page of my school planner when I was 16.
Local councils have little real power. Most of their activities are mandated by statute, and most of their funding comes from central government. Compared to their counterparts on the continent or in the United States, most of their policies end up being centrally determined, too. Cultural policy, public spectacle and big capital projects are among the few areas in which they can assert some autonomy.
Among other things, the council hopes that the library will contribute to the skills of Mancunians, and to local economic growth. Liberal capitalist managerialism has deep roots in Manchester. The Ship Canal, in which the Corporation was a majority investor, was supposed to bring in new trade and new industries. By 1906 the Corporation's role as part gallery curator, part CEO was being satirised in the local press. When the mayor led a group of distinguished guests around the meat packing warehouses at Salford Quays in the morning, and an exhibition at Heaton Park in the afternoon, one sketch writer reported:
From cattle pens to picture galleries, from butchery to the beautiful, from carnage to cloisonné ware, from gory roads to green fields, from the House of Death to the Mansion of the Living, from Mode Wheel to Heaton Park, was but a short ride on the elegantly-appointed but uncovered omnibus of the Corporation.
Such managerialism doesn't necessarily lead to bad results, and anyway the council has little room to manoeuvre. They seem to have got things broadly right at Central Library. Unlike in 1934 they won't be distributing handkerchiefs to every child in Manchester, as ‘that's a bit eighty years ago,’ MacInnes says. The handkerchiefs were printed with a picture of the library and the words ‘Knowledge is power.’ This time the council is giving my nieces and every other child in the city a library card.