Of the numerous public libraries in Greater Manchester, no less than 24 were paid for by the Scottish-American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. These were built from 1904 to 1927 and display a remarkable range of architectural styles, from the flamboyant baroque curves of Levenshulme (1904) to the restrained Art Deco geometries seen in Withington (1927). Some, like Stockport (1913-15), are large and imposing buildings that proclaim their civic virtues in both their visual dominance and abundant ornament. Stockport has a civic crest over its main entrance and stained glass in its interior; Halliwell (1910) in Bolton has prominent stone carvings on its frontage, including an open book inscribed ‘Let there be light’; while Eccles (1907) displays a veritable cornucopia of imagery, including luxuriant boughs of vegetation held by cupids and figures representing the arts and sciences above the doorways. This rich array of symbolism reflects Carnegie’s passion for libraries and his opinion that ‘a library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert’. The testimony of famous users confirms this: for example, as a child, architect Norman Foster ‘discovered a whole world of literature and also a world of architecture’ in his local Carnegie-built library in Levenshulme, and credits the library as enabling him to go to university.
The 24 Carnegie libraries in Greater Manchester represent only a tiny fraction of the many thousands of libraries funded by philanthropy in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although Manchester has the oldest public library in Britain – Chetham’s Library, founded in 1653 – it wasn’t until the passing of the 1851 Public Libraries Act that library provision became an important aspect of the civic duties of municipal authorities. Yet, even then, the Act didn’t allow those authorities to take money from their residents for books – only the buildings and staff could be paid for in this way. Nevertheless, in this early period, the Manchester Free Public Library was established in 1852, with branch libraries following soon after in Hulme (1857), Ancoats (1860), Chorlton and Ardwick (both 1866), and Cheetham (1876). The city’s central library would eventually evolve into the monumental neo-classical edifice that still dominates the civic centre of Manchester, built from 1930-34 and designed by E. Vincent Harris.
From the start, public libraries were regarded as a necessary provision for the working classes – stemming from a middle-class desire to ‘improve’ what working people were reading. Libraries were also a way in which Manchester sloughed off its predominant image in the mid-nineteenth century as an industrial city devoid of cultural life. Whether classical or gothic in style, library buildings created free spaces in the city for leisure: oases of culture amidst the dominance of utilitarian mills and warehouses. Carnegie clearly shared the view that libraries brought a more enlightened form of learning to the working classes, and he often chose to fund libraries in poor urban areas over provision for the middle classes. And many of these libraries proclaimed their didactic function in their spatial layout. For example, Stockport and Withington libraries are based on an ‘open-book’ plan – these buildings are wrapped around street corners, a single main entrance leading to an interior that fans out exactly as the pages of a book do.
Yet it’s no exaggeration to say that, today, the public library network in Greater Manchester is in danger of becoming extinct. Not only have some of the Carnegie-funded libraries closed – Castleton, Levenshulme, Wigan, Chadderton, Pemberton, Astley Bridge and Great Lever – but many others across the region, both old and new, face unprecedented challenges caused by the drastic cuts to the budgets of local authorities since the Conservative-led government came to power in 2010. In the last eight years, at least 478 of the UK’s 3,850 public libraries have closed, with another 500 now run by volunteers as the cuts have also seen the laying off of 8,000 librarians. As argued by Laura Swaffield, these recent developments are not only having a devastating effect on local library provision; they are also effectively destroying a national public library system that has been in place for decades. Evolving from the desire to make libraries work within a wider interconnected network of learning, this system meant that every local public library was also a gateway to national assets, including online reference works, newspaper archives, a link to the British Library, and events for children like the annual Summer Reading Challenge. As the many closures and ongoing cuts make clear, this standard service has now disappeared – users face a lottery as to what they’ll find now in their local libraries.
This dissolution of a national network betrays the principles on which public libraries were founded in the mid-nineteenth century, as well as the complex networks of learning and communication that have evolved since then. As anchor points in local communities, libraries are critical tools in maintaining social cohesion. They are sanctuaries for the lonely, resting places for the homeless, free spaces for those who lack resources, and places of wonder for avid learners of any age. They provide perhaps the only buildings in cities where the entire complex diversity of what constitutes the social is allowed to mix and mingle freely and without demands being made in return, except perhaps respect and politeness and sometimes silence. Even as the entire contents of the British Library can now fit in the memory of a high-end smartphone, there is still no substitute for libraries as places of gathering and exploration. As Robert Macfarlane so beautifully stated in December 2017, responding to an online petition calling for the government to provide more resources to public libraries: ‘Libraries are time-machines. Libraries are wildwoods. Libraries are galaxies. Libraries are magic portals into learning & dreaming’. The digital age has certainly transformed how, what and where we read, but it has also isolated us in our knowledge. In contrast, the physical and social space of the public library still provides a vital portal into a shared world whose loss threatens to isolate us even more.