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Speaking volumes

Jonathan Schofield finds that John Rylands Library is back better than ever, resuming its place as a top northern visitor attraction

Written by . Published on August 13th 2007.

Speaking volumes

The settling in period is over. If you get chance go there because one of the city’s greatest buildings is gagging for you to visit.

The Gothic phantasmagoria that is John Rylands Library (JRL) has re-opened after a lengthy and much delayed refurbishment and extension. Originally built as a tribute by Enriqueta Rylands to her dead husband for his charitable work, it opened on New Year’s Day 1900 and was designed by Basil Champneys. It’s been worth it in every way. Well almost. More of that later.

You cross into the older library over a bridge on the first floor. This is like crossing back through the Renaissance to the Middle Ages, from bright logic to the moody magic of a darkly lit corridor.

JRL’s extension by Austin-Smith-Lord architects was needed for several reasons: disabled access, better study areas and a new reception desk, café and shop – the latter pair, of course, the essential requirements for any self-respecting visitor attraction.

On the outside this new part is best described as drab, seemingly to emphasise the extravagance of the older building: it has an upper part like a work-surface in a kitchen showroom from Comet. Thankfully, the interior of the extension is a winner. Airy and gently handled, the show-stopper is the lofty atrium and staircase that leads into the old building and the study areas. The blending of the old and new is beautiful, brick and red terracotta details peeping through the blistering white modern plaster.

Before being drawn into that older building it’s worth taking a trip up to the new study areas. The Elsevier Room, sponsored by a Dutch publishers, is one of the best modern spaces in the city, a lovely looking area with wooden fixtures and fittings to-die-for from Peter Hall and Sons in Cumbria.

You cross into the older library over a bridge on the first floor. This is like crossing back through the Renaissance to the Middle Ages, from bright logic to the moody magic of a corridor darkly lit by glorious and original (108 year old) arts and crafts meets art nouveau electric light fittings.

New visitor features include an Introductory Gallery, describing the history of the library and how the collection was gathered, the Activities Gallery for families and the Christie Gallery which holds temporary exhibitions.

The most important adaptation is the Rylands Gallery which displays some of the most important items in JRL such as the oldest fragment of the New Testamentand a first edition of Newton’s Principia. The gallery is organised around seven themes: Faiths, History of the Bible, Beautiful Books, Science, World Literatures, Everyday Life and Manchester. The illuminated manuscripts are a joy and a reminder that JRL has one of the top ten collections of books and manuscripts on the planet.

These galleries are the most obvious ways through which a visitor can gauge the effectiveness of the refurb. The biggest improvement, the addition of a pitched slate roof as shown in Champney’s plans (a flat concrete roof originally installed) is hidden from view inside but obvious outside.

The best room, arguably in the city, is upstairs from the Rylands Gallery and is the main Reading Room – ludicrously renamed the Historic Reading Room as though it could be anything else, the Historic Toilets is an even more stupid phrase, as if either could be mistaken except by fools for part of the new extension.

Reached by definitely the best staircase in the city along with that of the Britannia Hotel, the main Reading Room is huge and truly monumental. It’s a Gothic dream of carved stone, stained glass and metalwork. At one end there’s a marble statue of Enriqueta Rylands and at the other, one of John Rylands.

In essence then JRL looks better than ever, is easier to use and, in short, everything’s coming up smelling of roses. Well sadly not. It’s wrong that the original main entrance on Deansgate is now sealed. Champney carefully designed this to impress readers to the maximum with a vestibule packed with columns - like a representation in stone of the forest in which the hero of Dante’s Divine Comedy is lost. This has now become bypassed.

Would it have been too much to have two entrances? Probably. Cost implications and security did it no doubt plus there’s no shop or café at this end. Aesthetics occasionally have to lose out.

Still, even with that disappointment, John Rylands Library remains too valuable a place with too valuable a collection to miss out on. With extended opening hours Mancunians have no excuse not to pop down. ASAP.

John Rylands Library is at 150 Deansgate. It is free to visit and is open Monday 10am-5pm, Tuesday noon-5pm, Wednesday-Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday noon- 5pm. This article was adapted from one in the Civic Society’s Forum magazine out now.

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