It’s the oldest public library in the English-speaking world. Chetham Library in Manchester, England, was founded in 1653 for the education of “the sons of honest, industrious and painful parents”. As well as a fine collection of early printed books, the collections include a wealth of ephemera, manuscript diaries, letters, deeds, prints, paintings and glass lantern-slides. And it operates as an independent charity, open to readers and visitors free of charge.
Much as I love my gadgets (and many of you know just how much I do), I find it hard to envisage how the experience of reading a book on an e-reader can compare with the peaceful experience of reading in libraries like this one, of stroking the tooled leather of books first opened over four hundred years ago.
It holds more than 100,000 volumes of printed books, of which 60,000 were printed before 1851, and was the meeting place of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Many of the eighteenth century periodicals and six Middle English manuscripts have been digitized and made available online.
The Baronial Hall is available for events and film shoots, being a wonderfully preserved example of the kind of timber halls to be found in the north west of England.
There are three-sided cloisters arranged around a central courtyard. Small stone doorways originally led to the fellows’ rooms. All of the ground floor rooms had fireplaces and were generously sized.
The Reading Room was part of the college warden’s accommodation. The large gate-leg table and leather backed chairs were purchased in the 1650’s.
I cannot imagine many places more conducive to peaceful study, and certainly no library of the digital age is likely to have such atmosphere, though I happily challenge modern architects to attempt to equal its rugged monastic charm. I suspect the only way forward is to invent a whole new way of experiencing books. Perhaps whole rooms wired for holographic reading of texts… or will computer game technology recreate Chetham in the digital realm?
Share links to your favourite libraries in the comments section and we’ll compile a list of the world’s most beautiful libraries. Feel free to share your thoughts on what the ideal library of the future might look like, too.