Our day began at 9:30 exactly, like an excited group of school children going on a trip. Annette checked that everyone was present and led us in the direction of the minibus.
The Portico Library is situated right in the heart of Manchester (or near the shops) and if you were not looking for it, I think it’s fair to say that you would miss it quite easily. Like Gladstone’s Library it, was a purpose built library. Opened in 1806 it was the result of 10 years of planning and construction that came from its founders Michael Ward and Robert Robinson’s visit to the Athenaeum in Liverpool. Their visit to the Athenaeum made them realise that Manchester lacked a library and newsroom like that in Liverpool.
You walk in through the side door of the Portico, climb several flights of stairs and then reach the Gallery, a large open space filled with light from the impressive dome on the ceiling. You are also confronted by sumptuous book-lined walls. The four walls of the Library show the subject areas that the library housed: Travels and Voyages, Biography and Polite Literature. Polite literature, we were told, was the kind of literature that, as reading was becoming a leisurely pursuit rather than for scholarly purposes, was acceptable for everyone, including women.
As we sat having tea and cake, Taylor gave us a brief talk about the history of the library and how it operates today. The original building included a newsroom on the ground floor and a gallery to make it easier to browse more of the shelves. Today the newsroom is a pub leased from the library. The gallery has a fixed floor and is used to host different exhibitions throughout the year. During our visit we were able to browse and also take a look at what the Portico Library could look like in the future, with models designed by Manchester students.
Looking around, it was clear that the books at the Portico were in need of rebinding. The Portico launched an adopt a book campaign to help with the cost of repairing all the books. Hopefully they will all be rebound soon so that everyone will be able to enjoy them without causing any more damage. The Portico is still working from index cards as an online catalogue is built – I think entries for 13,000 of 25,000 books had been completed at the time of our visit and so it will, even now, be easier to search for items.
The best part of the day, I think, was having lunch in the library itself. Like Gladstone’s Library, the Portico has a kitchen but the big difference is that you eat in among the books – it was strange being able to do this, but it was an incredible feeling to be able to discuss the similarities between Gladstone’s Library and The Portico while eating in the book-lined room. The Portico Library is definitely worth visiting if you are heading into Manchester.
The Library is hoping to put on more events and trips for Friends in the future. Get in touch if you are interested in joining.