Moderately fulfilling

Books Yesterday I visited the newly reopened John Rylands Library on Deansgate in Manchester. I first slipped through its doors at lunch time during a particularly horrific day at work in the early naughties seeking something cultural. That's exactly what found within its walls, gothic architecture resembling a church, but with books and desks instead of crusafixes and pews.

Not having much time, it was still instant gratification, a quick reminder that there was a life outside of the credit card balances I was dealing with during the day and I signed up to their mailing list and hoped that some of what I'd seen would at least come through my letterbox. The irregular newsletters came and within a few months it was announced that the library would be closing for refurbishment, restoration and for the building of a new visitor centre and there they are now with the latter, a modern adjunct in glass and stone sympathetically hidden behind the main building.

The library was built by Enriqueta Rylands as a memorial to he husband John, a cotton magnate from St Helens, to enrich the architecture and cultural understanding within local the area. This kind of memorial library is unque in Britain and she set about making it even more special by specifically purchasing notable artifacts, a tradition that has continued throughout its life and the collection, in a range of languages, includes everything from Caxton Bibles to fragments from Homer's Odyssey, a haul which was augemented considerably with the library's merger with Manchester University in the early seventies.

Instead of stepping through the main doors on Deansgate, entry to the library is now made through that modern visitors centre with its ground floor gift shop and cafe. The effect is not unlike that found at the British Museum in the hall that now surrounds the old reading room. It's surprisingly sympathetic with the new walkways leading through old doorways on the various floors, exhibition spaces now set up in what look like the old offices on the first floor.

This includes a simplistic overview of the history of the library -- bullet heads with the main points instead of the paragraphs that might have appeared not that long ago, Then on to the first book rooms, the Crawford and Spencer and the first inkling of something which would niggle throughout the visit which although understandable stopped the library from being quite as exciting for me as it should be.

These rooms are filled with ancient books, small volumes, large volumes and very large volumes on a range of subject in a mass of genres. I'm immediately, obviouslty drawn to these fat volumes of Shakespeare. I spot Henry V and Hamlet. They're really impressive and I want to look inside see if I can find out more about them. Except , of course, they're not on book shelves but display cabinets, which intriques me even more. Are these really folios and if so what vintage?

An attendant wanders through. I ask him: 'Are they folios? When are they from?'
'Dunno mate.' He says, 'But they're big and heavy - I speak from experience - putting them up on the shelf.'
And he wanders off again. I wrote down what he said so I wouldn't forget. I stand looking at these enticing volumes with their golden encrusted spines and suddenly seem less illuminated. Perhaps he was having a bad day (in spite of his whistling) but I wanted enthusiasm, to be enthused, for there to be passion to back up my obvious enthusiasm. It started to rain outside.

Which was really the story of the visit in the end, throughout there were amazing delights, things which could get people excited about books and reading and learning but there's a barrier stopping them from fufilling their original purpose. Which isn't to say that there weren't some jewels on display -- a fragment of St. John's Gospel dating back to AD125 for example, the oldest known fragment of that book anywhere and a small display about John Dalton, who wrote 'A New System of Chemical Philosophy' which oddly includes a lock of his hair, taken when he fell seriously all after a stroke.

The Historic Reading Room is stunning though and just as I remember it. Its church-like feel is a result of the architect's usual commissions and Mrs Rylands had to ask him to tone down some of his excesses -- she wasn't a religious woman herself. According to the souvenir guide, the room was built thirty feet above street level to minimize disturbance from horse-drawn traffic and this feature still works now, the roaring of engines of Deansgate being absent, the space almost silent with the exception of the muttering of visitors and when I was wondering through a pensioner with a hacky cough.

The walls are lined by reliefs of the great men whose work is included in the collection -- Gutenberg to Newton, Bacon to Shakespeare (or Shakespere as the plaque would have it). At the top and tail of the room ae marble statues of the Rylands by John Cassidy. It really is impressive, but still frustrating because once more all of the books are in display cases, behind glass, artifacts outside of their original purpose.

The many spines are interesting, pretty even, but what's inside is even more interesting. And to access that you have to be part of the university and (as I discovered when I visited the new reader's reception to ask) you need two forms of ID and a letter from a tutor explaining specifically why you want to look at whatever it is you want to have a look at. This is a non-browsing library. You really need to know what you're looking for and why.

Which as I said before is entirely understandable -- this is after all, now, the building that houses the special collections of the university, many, many valuable volumes of the kind that letting anyone just pick up and handle would be a really bad idea in the long run. It's just a shame that Mrs Rylands original intention, to offer these materials for the general public, to enrich everyone, can't be fulfilled any longer.

So what you're left with is a really impressive building that's wonderful to look at, moderately fulfilling its purpose. I suspect that actually this is all just the regretful part of me that misses the university experience surfacing as it always will. Plus I'm sure most of anything written in these books could be found at the local library in nice new copies and that indeed most of these books have historical artifact value anyway. And I did get to see some Shakespeare in the display - a pair of facsimile Quartos by Charles Praetorius from 1885 of Hamlet and King Lear. The title pages at least.

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