Big New Libraries – Manchester

I visited Manchester Central Library in September 2014, months after it had opened.  At this stage, I had visited both the new Liverpool and Birmingham Libraries.  Many thanks to the chief librarian of Manchester, Neil MacInnes who – much to my surprise and in addition to my own exploration and chats to users – gave me a 90 minute tour of the place.

Whoops: not the image one hoped for

Whoops: not the image one hoped for

First impressions were not as impressive as I hoped.  The beautiful circular domed building was hiding behind hoardings and roadworks (new tramlines) when I visited and the glass entrance has not yet been finished yet.  This meant that one had to walk around boards in order to get to the, before 9am, the very closed oaken door which has no opening hours on it.  Hmm.  Having said that, there were forty or so people waiting outside and the chap I was talking to before it opened said how great the place was.

When you enter, take awhile and notice that, surprisingly, there are donation boxes are present in the library. Specially designed boxes, there were many coins and several five pound notes in them when I checked.  There are also forms allowing you to Gift Aid your donation.  The income, like that from events and from the small retail presence, goes not to the council but rather to Manchester Central Library Development Trust.  This, due to tax and other advantages (like the money not being swallowed up by the general council fund) is an increasingly common occurrence in council-run libraries, with Northamptonshire also doing something similar.

There's fivers in there

There’s fivers in there

You will also notice the café, run by a trust and not by the library.  It gets very well used and there are plans to open a second café elsewhere in the building.  Staff (all council staff, not just library) get 20% off.  The space was used by all ages – including mums and tots who’d been in earlier for a tots session – with the trendy young being noticeable by their presence. There are also three “interactive” tables where, presumably, some shocked people have sat down and not realised that the table was trying to tell them stuff.  I noticed some people playing with these while I was there, although I was amused to hear that someone had recently been noticed putting up an umbrella over it (the interaction is via projected light) to turn it off.

Check out the ceiling in this place

Check out the ceiling in this place

The main thing, though, people will notice is how beautiful the place is.  The older sections feel like a very posh hotel or, possibly, a palace.  This is no exaggeration.  It’s gorgeous.  There’s marble there, stained glass windows, everything shines.  Forget tatty noticeboards and leaflets everywhere – the library has gone to war on clutter and it has, as of now, won.  The whole place is tidy.

Interactive archives

Interactive archives

Move in further and you will see the “Archives+” bit.  There are loads – seriously, they’re everywhere – interactive screens and exhibits in
this area.  The intention is to show in an easy and, frankly, fun way what the Library holds in order to encourage further investigation.  Popular with kids, I also noted many adults looking at the work and I understand this has also increased community interaction.  For instance, the full interactive wall showing archives now has a box which opens showing material from a predominantly black festival.

Where's Doctor Who?

Where’s Doctor Who?

There is also a centrepiece interactive map of the city, which is designed to show others what you’re looking at, encouraging discussion and discovery.  But, beyond all this gee-whiz tech, the traditional library is not forgotten.  I especially liked the video of an actor pretending to be an old style librarian talking about the old place, and artifacts from the previous incarnation’s grand opening.  This is a place that, like Liverpool but unlike (and I’m not including the odd addition of the old room at its top) Birmingham, is proud of its past.

Stacks of shelves are still obvious even in the more showy sections and there is even, beat more slowly my librarian heart, an old style wooden card catalogue cabinet.  This is all part of the strategy of integrating everything together … So you don’t get just computer areas or just book areas. Similarly, the seating and PCs are fully scattered around.  You’re never very far from one or the other or both.  One can also take a book from one area and read it quite happily in another.  I suspect people have their own favourite places and secret spots that they return to and the library positively encourages this. One can easily go from the library to the archive to the customer contact centre with no barriers.  There are rolling stacks even by the children’s library (although these last are of course security coded to stop flattened kids: although they all have sensors too of course).

The old arts, and books, survive

The old arts, and books, survive

Hiding upstairs is also the conservation area that all other councils within Manchester but the services of.  There’s some real treasures hiding up there I can tell you.  The wonderful chap working in the section waxed lyrical about the stuff he’s working on, including that day a hand written diary from a seventeenth century British soldier. I very very carefully put my coffee cup away when I was shown that, I can tell you.

Local pride

Local pride

Something that shines from the place, in a similar way to that of Liverpool, is the sense of pride in the city.  This is done quite intentionally to show off what the Library holds.  For instance, that rolling stack does not just have blank sides: it has pictures of prominent Mancunians on it as well, with a brief bio at the bottom and the unspoken invitation to use the library to find out more about them.

As well as the public areas, the library has of course staff only sections.  The workroom I saw had hotdesking PCs that all partner organisations could use.  Being that this joint use of facilities also include the staff rooms, there is much opportunity for even more cross working and chance meetings between people from different organisations. And there’s lists of them: there’s the local history society (volunteer experts but complementary to, and not replacing, paid staff), the North West Film Archive (part of one of the universities)’ the British Film Instiute, the British Library business centre, the catering and office booking people and doubtless others I did not notice.  Seriously, this place almost takes the mickey in the sheer number of organisations sharing the building. The reasoning is that libraries cannot be the experts in all fields, that the library is for the whole of the city in a most expansive way and also, doubtless that it’s cheaper this way.  No harm in that last by the way.

Not bad for a meeting room

Not bad for a meeting room

Have I mentioned meeting rooms yet?  This place is full of them.  There’s bookable study carrels, huddle spaces, bland small office spaces, big modern meeting spaces (fitting 100 easy) with all mod cons and some beautifully historic panelled rooms too. One was the old library committee room and the old chief librarian’s office.  Both shouted of closed off genteel elitism but now both are open to business and other events. They looked ideal for posh business receptions and (I’m in a position to know, show off as I am) knocked the spots off, say, 11 Downing Street. Interestingly, although most of the rooms are managed by a separate trust, the library keeps hold of one or two rooms deliberately so it knows that it can keep some space for itself and it’s own business.

There's powerpoints here.  Cunning.

There’s powerpoints here. Cunning.

The library is big enough that offers a space for quiet as well as for bustle.  The circular reading room, magnificently panelled and domed, is quiet. There’s not a member of staff in the place: the quiet is maintained by the users.  Talk in that room and you are going one shushed.  Neil did not speak while he showed me the space because of this.  Without any overt marketing or signage, the place can be full (and I’m talking 400 here) students come exam time, all sitting in silence.  For quiet is something that these students do not have anywhere else and which only the library can provide.  Apart from the laptops (full and fee wifi access is available everywhere in the building, with no need to give ID: you just click that you’re accepting the terms and conditions) you’d think you were in 1880.  Even the power points on all the Victorian style wooden desks are well hidden … I couldn’t see them myself and I was looking. I had to be shown.  All the students knew about them though.

Not just Handa's Surprise

Not just Handa’s Surprise

I’ve been reading with interest the hassle that Malorie Blackman has gone through just by pointing out that there are too few people of ethnic minorities in children’s books.  I reckon she’d love Manchester Central.  There’s a whole section just for race relations and children.  There’s also yet another partnership – the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre – that appears well used.

photo (13)

The teenage section, sort of

Remember earlier that I said you could get a book from one section then walk elsewhere?  Well, that got me when I saw what the teenage section.  The thing is, it’s not all that impressive.  There’s some action figures behind glass (!) and some seating that gets moved around a lot but generally it does not look wonderful.  There are game consoles in the Media Lounge (a bunch of Macs, bookable free for three hours per day rather than the standard one hour for PCs – all computers are self-service, including printing: this is important as I noticed at Birmingham long queues waiting for harassed staff to do this) but even here they are not walled off in a separate area, unlike for instance at Liverpool Central.  The idea is that here is that there’s going to be no trouble if everyone can always be seen and it will feel that it is everyone’s, not just one specific demographic.  The aim, Neil told me, is that the library is keen for users to walk around all of it rather than being felt corralled in one section.  I certainly saw a complete range of people as I wandered around.  This what strikes me about public libraries and what Central prides itself on: old and young study and browse together, as do people of all ethnic groups.  You don’t get hassled if you look dodgy or don’t have money.  I asked about antisocial behaviour and was told that there was some in pre-refurbishment but now there’s almost none.  The reason put forward is that the place simply does not feel appropriate for that.  Doubtless the security guards help (but then they were at the old place too) but there may be something to that.  It would certainly feel like sacrilege to me.

One area which did have security and you were stopped (very politely) if you tried to enter was the council customer service centre which also feels like part of the library, although it is actually part of the council hall annexe.  There’s council self service machines (bins and such like) by the entrance to it and a small queue to be allowed to go inside.  This seemed a shame to me but the room itself was terribly glossy and the staff I talked to (one being a lady who said that her brother now works in libraries in the town and said how great they all were) could not have been better,

Boring? Nope.  There's animated plants and animals on them walls

Boring? Nope. There’s animated plants and animals on them walls

Anyone who knows me knows that I think that children’s libraries should be an important part of the library.  That age group is the demographic whose usage (hello Summer Reading Challenge) is going strong and it accounts for a surprisingly high percentage of library use.  You wouldn’t know that, unfortunately, in this library.  The section is still pretty small (although to be fair it was tiny in the old incarnation) and the children’s sessions can still be pretty squashed.  There are an increasing number of families moving back into the city centre and so this disappointed me.  Having said that, wow, they’ve done one or two beautiful things in this section.  There’s animated rabbits made of light that prance on the walls.  There’s one of those motion sensitive projectors where you your body movements move things on the wall.  I especially liked the flowerpot that you moved and all projected flowers came out along the wall.  Nice. Two local charities helped fund this area and move it from being a major disappointment into something that the library can be proud of.  It still needs to be way bigger, though.

My overall verdict is that I love this place.  It shows what imagination and money (it’s not PFI by the way, you’ll be glad to know) can do.  4,000 people use this library on a typical day, of all types.  This shows what a modern public library can be and … in Manchester … is. Those that say libraries are dying should look at this place and see what can and should be done.  I suspect that this place is as important in the hearts and lives of the city as it has ever been.  It has updated, embraced joyously the old and the new, partnerships and pride, and come up with something that is special.

  • #1 written by Rob Hanlon
    about 9 years ago

    Special mention should be made about the Library Staff, as I have always found them to be particularly helpful. The ‘new’ interior is fantastic and a credit to Manchester.

  • #2 written by Steven Heywood
    about 9 years ago

    I was under orders to be there for the opening day (my partner works for Archives+) and I was glad I did because the place blew me away. repeat visits haven’t diminished the feeling.

    If you’re interested, my Flickr album of the opening day is here.

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