The John Rylands Library is one of Manchester’s hidden treasures. The Victorian neo-gothic building has a spectacular interior that combines the neo-gothic architectural style with design elements of the Arts and Crafts movement.
The library was financed by Enriqueta Rylands, the widow of John Rylands, a textile manufacturer and Manchester’s first millionaire, as a memorial to her late husband after his death in 1888. The library was built in the neo-gothic architectural style that was popular at the time and it opened to the public on 1 January 1900.
Its collection was started with the purchase of the 43,000-item private library of George Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer, the great great great great grandfather of Diana, Princess of Wales. This meant that from the very start, it had a world-class collection that included rare works including some items from the 15th century. Nowadays, the library is part of the University of Manchester and it houses over 250,000 books.
What to see at John Rylands Library
Although the library looks rather grubby from the outside (a couple of months of high-pressure cleaning would do wonders for the place), the interior is a sight to behold.
The highlight is the main reading room on the first floor with a layout that resembles that of a church, although the alcoves to the sides of the central corridor were built for quiet study rather than prayer. It is quite a special atmosphere and many visitors compare it with Hogwarts.
Other rooms of interest include the Crawford and Spencer Rooms as well as the Rylands Gallery, which holds many of the library’s rare books and manuscripts with some of these on display to the public.
The library’s special collection of rare books includes an original Gutenberg Bible, the Rylands Library Papyrus P52 (the oldest known fragment of the New Testament) and the second largest collection of printing by William Caxton.
The entrance hall and main staircase are particularly impressive with ornate neo-gothic stonework and the original Victorian-era toilets are largely unchanged from when the library opened in 1900.
Visiting John Rylands Library
John Rylands Library is in the Spinningfields district of Manchester city centre and there is a lot to see within a five-minute walk from the library. The free Metroshuttle bus (routes 1 and 2) stops outside the library.
Although part of the University of Manchester, the building is open to the public and there is no admission fee. If you’re in the area, and it is right in the centre of the city, then you should certainly pop in for a look.
Despite being a historic building, the library is mostly wheelchair-accessible. You can enter the library through a modern annexe that has lift access to all floors of the library. However, the historic entrance hall to the building, the Victorian-era toilets below the entrance hall and, of course, the main staircase, are not wheelchair-accessible.
The library is a small cafe and an excellent gift shop, although the central location means that there are plenty of places to eat and drink nearby.
The beautiful building is a great spot for photography (although tripods and flash photography are not allowed) and the library even runs special sessions for photographers where you have access to the building before it opens to the public, although these must be booked in advance.
Tours of the library take place every Wednesday and Friday afternoon at 3pm. These half-hour tours are a great introduction to the library. There is no need to book in advance, simply turn up just before 3pm. Occasionally the library also operates more in-depth tours that take you to parts of the building that the public doesn’t normally have access to. These tours are usually free, although it is necessary to book in advance.
If you’re not taking a tour, half-an-hour ought to be enough time to see everything of interest.
If you enjoyed visiting this building, you should also pay a visit to Chetham’s Library and the Manchester Central Library, which also boast impressive (but very different) interiors.