The Romance of Chetham Library

By Posted in - On Reading on June 3rd, 2010 6 Comments

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.

585n_hMuch 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.

Chained books

Chained books


Karl Marx's favourite place to read at Chetham.

Karl Marx’s favourite place to read at Chetham.

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.


The Reading Room

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.


(6) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Rachna Chhabria - Reply

    June 3, 2010 at 4:45 am

    WOW! Chetham Library looks awesome. Absolutely wonderful place to spend few hours reading or writing. Thanks Lia, for the fabulous pictures of the library.
    When I am in any library I lose track of time. 🙂
    .-= Rachna Chhabria´s last blog ..The Lonely Life of an Indian Writer =-.

  • Nancy Laughlin - Reply

    June 3, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    Who wants a library of the future? I like the ones from the past. How absolutely gorgeous that library is! I love the stone work and old world feel.
    Like you, I challenge architects of today to match the beauty of those old buildings, not to mention how well they hold up to time and the elements.

  • Sandra - Reply

    June 3, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    *I* love it too now that I know about it!! Now it is my dream to get to go visit there someday….! While I find my iPad really fun, nothing will EVER compare to reading a REAL book, and to being in a REAL library (especially one of such beauty, history and scope).

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    June 3, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    Rachna, Nancy and Sandra,

    I’m happy that you loved the photos. When I first saw them yesterday I just knew I wanted to share them and reveal this little-known gem to a wider audience. 🙂

  • Krystal - Reply

    June 3, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    I would love to spend an afternoon (or every afternoon) in that library! Another beautiful library is the one at the Strahov Monastery in Prague. I’ve never been to it, but it looks fabulous.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    June 3, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    Wow, Krystal, that ceiling is a masterpiece of engineering and artistry! Thanks so much for sharing it. Anyone else got any library links to share?

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