Main Library 1981

A Brief History of Main Library

Had there been a Guardian University Award for Facilities in 1936, it’s quite possible the University’s Arts Library – the earliest part of what we now call Main Library – would have won it.

Commissioned in 1934, it was to be built using the best materials and furnishings and — exceptionally for the times – the architects paid particular attention to library needs in such details as lighting for book bays and providing dedicated rooms for activities such as cataloguing, special collections and meetings. The library would accommodate 300,000 volumes and 300 readers.

Chorlton on Medlock, Burlington Street, Buildings opposite Owens College from Wright Street. Manchester Public Libraries, ref. m18999.
Looking along Burlington Street towards Oxford Road from within a few feet of where the entrance to the Main Library now stands. Manchester Public Libraries Ref. Number m18999.

All this was part of wider plans to redevelop Lime Grove which were to include a new student building and refectory as well as gardens which would be in direct contrast with the slum properties which then still surrounded the University. Plans also included linking the new library to the Arts Building (Samuel Alexander), but these were dropped. The Arts Library was opened in 1936.

Lime Grove
The University of Manchester, 1926 aerial view. Pre-development Lime Grove can be clearly seen next to the Whitworth Hall bottom centre. Manchester Public Libraries Ref. Number m67662.

Less than 20 years later, two further wings (what we now know as Purple and Green areas) were added. Anticipating the need for further development, plans for a further two-stage extension were drawn up in the early 1970s. The first part was completed in 1981, but not before the Muriel Stott Conference Centre had been built in 1979.

Main Library Undergoing extensions in 1981
Main Library Undergoing extensions in 1981

A major benefit of the 1981 work was that, for the first time, the scientific and medical libraries (until then housed in the Christie Library – today, Christie Bistro) could be in the same location as other material. The Main Library as we know it was born.

The new building was not entirely without problems. The state-of-the-art ventilation and heating system failed to live up to expectations, while navigation problems resulted in a series of abandoned schemes (Areas 1,2, 3 and 3a were followed by 1, 2 ,3 and 4 before the present colours were adopted).

Turnstiles on Blue Ground 1981
Turnstiles on Blue Ground 1981

The now anomalous single escalator was intended to convey people quickly into the body of the library while later innovations included a dedicated Information Centre (Blue 1) which allowed access to the emerging technology of electronic resources.

Escalator on Main Library Blue Ground, 1981
Escalator on Main Library Blue Ground, 1981

The second part of the 1981 extension was never undertaken, though the presence of the ‘temporary’ finish on the exterior of the West side of the building has been an ongoing reminder of the need for development — a need which will finally be met with the Main Library Redevelopment.

Take a closer look at how the Library appeared in the early eighties with our recently uncovered induction video ‘This is Your Library’ (beware – some of the haircuts featured in this video aren’t for the faint-hearted!)

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