The oldest library in Manchester: the Chetham's Library

Today I paid a visit to Manchester and definitely I would not miss the Chetham’s Library, the oldest surviving library in Manchester, and also one of the oldest and most important of the early public libraries in England. This library came into being as a result of the will of Humphrey Chetham, a prosperous Manchester woolen and linen merchant, who, on his death in 1653, left the bulk of his large fortune to be dispread of for charitable purposes.£200 was left to establish small religious libraries in five local churches and chapels, and the sum of £1,000, together with the remainder of his estate, was allocated for the establishment of this Chetham’s library. In order to house the library, the governors of Chetham’s will purchased the medieval College House, which had formerly provided the accommodation for the clergy of the Collegiate Church, and following the repair and adaptation of the building, the Library was opened to readers in 1656.

More than three hundred years have already passed but the library in front of me still locates in this medieval building and keeps many characteristics of its early time. The original system of alphabetically labelling each press still be seen on the oak panels and books are still organized by their sizes: large books at the bottom for easy handling, and small ones at the top.

An aisle inside the library

Besides, although the early book chains had been removed in the mid-18th century, some traces of the early hinges and plates for the chains can still be seen. And what interested me most is the way in which early modern readers studied. It is said that the chaining of books was not immediately promising for readers, as chained books were the exact reverse of the kind of reading suggested by early modern ‘book wheels’ and associated technologies. When reading a book at a shelf, the length of the chains meant that readers were effectively limited to looking at the books immediately to the left and to the right. The chains made it impossible for readers to have a number of different books in front of them at the same time. Far from being able to assert their own individual power over the texts by reading them side-by-side or in comparison, the reader physically moved around to gain the information they wished to take from a book.[1] It was easy to adhere to this structure early on, but by the mid-18th century the library’s collection had outgrown the original shelves and the presses were increased in height. The practice of chaining was abandoned and, instead, gates were put up to prevent theft. Nowadays these gates are still there and can only be opened by librarians.

The shelves

Another decision made by the early governors was that they decided to house the library on the first floor in order to avoid rising damp, which also reflects the preservation idea of the early time. However, by modern standard, such a method is far from sufficient. When I stood by the side of these presses, I could obviously fell the high level of Relative Humidity inside this building. And there are only several fans on the ceiling to allow the air to circulate. Besides, due to the lower location of those big books on the bottom, I could have a close-up view of them. What I have found is that due to their big size, many spines of these books were broken and textblocks were separated from their covers. Every time when I see such a situation, I am always thinking about rationality of the book design and shelving method. I think it would be much better for the library to equip these big size books with book shoes.

Next to the book presses, it is the reading room. After the practice of chaining was abandoned, books were allowed to be brought to the reading room for study, this is a practice which continues today. This magnificent reading room contains some of the most beautiful furniture in the building, with its Cromwellian gate-legged table. Above the fireplace is an elaborate heraldic and emblematic display commemorating Chetham and his foundation. His coat of arms is in the centre, flanked by obelisks resting on books and supporting torches, flanked by obelisks resting on books and supporting torches symbolic of learning. Importantly, the most interesting thing I found in this reading room is the original chained library of the Parish Church built up by Chetham. As it is mentioned above, besides the Chetham’s Library, the sum of £200 for the provision of five small libraries, designed to be chained and housed in wooden chests. Of the five original libraries only two have survived, those of Gorton and Turton. In 1984, the chained library of Gorton was placed in Chetham’s Library on permanent loan and was bought outright with the help of a lottery grant in 2001. These books in wooden chests were still shelved with the fore-edge rather than the spine facing outwards to prevent the chains from rubbing against the bindings.

[1] Yeo, M. The Acquisition of Books by Chetham's Library, 1655-1700. Library of the Written World: the Handpass World, 2011: 58.

#photo #Visiting #ChethamsLibrary #ChainedLiibrary

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