Despite savage cuts to library services across the country, the development of Manchester’s Central Library is on target for an opening in early 2014.
The neo-classical building, designed by E. Vincent Harris, was declared open by King George V on 17 July 1934, who declared to the crowd: “In the splendid building which I am about to open, the largest library in this country provided by a local authority, the Corporation have ensured for the inhabitants of the city magnificent opportunities for further education and for the pleasant use of leisure.”
Famous users of the library since then have included the conductor Sir John Barbirolli, who was a regular user of the Music Library, Anthony Burgess who wrote the cult classic A Clockwork Orange, and Morrissey, former lead singer of The Smiths who studied there for his A level exams.
Central Library is one of the city’s best known and most iconic landmarks. It is the second busiest and largest public library in the UK, attracting more visitors than the British Library, and is widely regarded as one of the finest libraries in Europe.
The establishment of Central Library was another Manchester first, as the city was the first authority to initiate a rate supported public lending and reference library in 1852, and it retains the capacity for one of the greatest public library collections in the country, held by and for the benefit of the citizens of Manchester.
In 2010 Manchester City Council began a four-year project to modernise and expand the much-loved landmark in St Peter’s Square in the midst of a climate of unease about the future of libraries in the UK.
The cost of the central library development is part of the £150million Town Hall Complex Transformation project which includes Library Walk and St Peter’s Square.
The decision to transform the Town Hall complex reflected Manchester City Council’s desire to preserve the Grade II listed heritage buildings, and the history they represent, for the benefit of future generations.
When the refurbishment was initially agreed Manchester City Council made a commitment to have replaced or refurbished every library in the city within the next five years.
Councillor Mike Amesbury, Executive Member for Culture and Leisure said at the time: "The budget announcement is a major vote of confidence for our library strategy, which will now see the replacement, improvement or refurbishment of every community library in the city within five years.
“This is fantastic news for the people of Manchester with whom the city's libraries are extremely popular - the number of people joining the library is increasing every year, more books are being borrowed and customers tell us they really like the increased opening hours. These plans are extremely exciting and give us an excellent opportunity to redesign and develop our library services for the twenty-first century."
In 2010 1.2million people visited the central library and the council have set a target of 2 million visitors per year when it re-opens.
When the library was closed for refurbishment, replacement services were established at Elliot House and One First Street and staff were distributed throughout the service.
Currently much of the stock is being stored in an unused area of Winsford Salt Mine in Cheshire and, whereas before, seventy percent of the library space was closed to the public, after refurbishment, this space will be opened up.
Cllr Mike Amesbury said: “The refurbishment allows us to throw open the doors of the library in a way we never have before. Previously just 30% of Central Library was open to the public.
“We’re flipping that round and when Central Library opens, visitors will be able to access 70% of the library – that represents more than half a million items – and we are creating a new storage area which will keep the most precious parts of our collection in perfect condition for generations to come.
“As part of this process we’re also carrying out much-needed housekeeping, as all libraries do. This gives us the opportunity to weed out the books that are out of date or no longer needed, or where we have multiple copies of the same books.
“Most will be found new homes, which could be charity shops or educational establishments. Some, for example those in very poor condition, will be recycled.”
In contrast, neighbouring Trafford Council unveiled in December 2011 a £16million cuts programme for 2012 which will include slashing library services. Proposals by the council will affect one in three libraries across the area.
Professional librarian body, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, who are campaigning to raise awareness among members of parliament from all parties as to how damaging cuts to public library services in the UK could be, estimates that 20% of the service will be under threat in 2012.
A recent report by the National Literacy Trust discloses that one in three children in the UK do not own a book . It is a figure that has tripled since seven years ago and the financial crisis being felt by members of the public, particularly the most vulnerable.
According to the publication the Library Journal: “Despite their funding peril, public libraries remain one of the most popular government services and historically have fared pretty well at the ballot box. In 2009, voters passed 84% of library funding referendums nationwide.”
As author and library campaigner Philip Pullman said in a speech defending Oxfordshire Libraries given in January 2011: “Market fundamentalism, this madness that’s infected the human race, is like a greedy ghost that haunts the boardrooms and council chambers and committee rooms from which the world is run these days.”
It is to the credit of the citizens of Manchester and their council that Central Library is to get the attention it deserves while libraries in other parts of the UK are suffering under the current government.