In these peculiar times of social isolation and mass toilet roll panic we are (tasteless pun alert) opening up the bowels of Manchester Central Library and focusing on its fantastic and unique Special Collections and telling some of the stories behind them.

The collections are held in the underground chambers of the library (not as gothic or Hogwarts-like as it sounds) in the space previously occupied by the Library Theatre.  They were collected primarily in the late 19th and early 20th Century by purchase or often by bequest or donation and range from 13th Century manuscripts to early copies of the Eagle comic.

There are over 40,000 rare volumes in addition to long periodical runs, our unique music collections, tracts and archive material. 

During the closure period we be spotlighting some of these individual treasures or collections, from the internationally renowned to the quirky and those with a Manchester connection.

Of course, as we have discovered over the last six years, following the amazing transformation of the library, nothing really beats seeing and handling the real thing – so, when social distancing is replaced by social contact once more and Central Library can re-open its doors, we will be holding regular handling sessions featuring many of these items, so you can touch a real piece of history.

Monday 1 June 2020

Children’s Literature Collection

Children’s literature can be traced to stories and songs that adults shared with children before publishing existed. Early books for children tended to be moralistic in nature with the purpose of conveying educational and religious lessons. It was only in the 18th Century with the development of the concept of ‘children’ that the genre of children’s literature began to emerge.

Central Library holds much material of interest including it’s oldest book for children, a Latin dictionary published by WIlliam Clerk in 1602. Another early item is ‘Children’s Bread’ which was published circa 1843, a miniature book featuring a religious message for every day of the year. A novelty item, it was designed to be kept in a child’s pocket,

Fans of Harry Potter might enjoy a selection of school stories from the early 20th Century including the whimsically titled ‘For the sake of his Chum’ by Walter Rhodes [1913] and published in 1908, ‘The third class at Miss Kayes’ by Angela Brazil who briefly attended Manchester Secondary School and who wrote over 50 books for girls.

Those who appreciate illustration might prefer ‘Peter Pan in Kensington’ by J. M. Barrie published in 1906 which features the haunting and dream-like artwork of Arthur Rackham.

Central Library’s collection of children’s literature features many of the most famous characters in children’s books. There is a Latin version of Winnie the Pooh from 1960, Babar the Elephant appears in ‘Babar’s ABC’ by Jean de Brunhoff [1937] and the Library holds a first edition of ‘The Snowman’ by Raymond Briggs from 1978. Winnie the Pooh, Babar and The Snowman all later became stars of the screen.

There is something for everyone to enjoy in the collection which includes nursery rhymes, fairy tales, picture books, adventure stories and magazines
from the 17th to the 21st Century. On the reopening of Central Library we plan to run a handling session to share some of these special items with the public.

Tuesday 21 April 2020

Curtis’s Botanical Magazine

Curtis’s Botanical Magazine can be considered to be the premier journal for early botanical illustrations. It was founded in 1787 by William Curtis who was an apothecary and botanist. The early illustrations were initially hand-coloured prints taken from copper engravings and were accompanied by text giving information on the plants depicted.

The magazine enabled artists’ work to be published in a format which made their work accessible to a new, wider audience. The first volume’s illustrations were mostly by Sydenham Edwards, other artists who contributed included Walter Hood FInch who produced over 2700 illustrations and the orchid painter Nellie Roberts.

Plant illustrations were valuable both scientifically and aesthetically. In the days before photographs, botanists relied on illustrations to help with plant identification and due to the level of detail captured by an illustration, botanists still use them for this purpose

Curtis’s Botanical Magazine continues to be published by the Royal Botanical Gardens as a publication for those interested in horticulture, ecology or botanical illustration.

If spending increased time in your garden or appreciating new blooms on your daily walks has initiated an interest in all things floral, then plan a visit to Central LIbrary when re-opened to take a look at this stunning periodical.

Tuesday 14th April 2020

The Elizabeth Gaskell Collection

Elizabeth Gaskell was a Victorian writer who lived from many years at 84 Plymouth Grove, Manchester.  She is most famous for her novels ‘Cranford’, ‘North and South’ and ‘Wives and Daughters’, each having  been adapted for television by the BBC.  She also wrote the first biography of her friend Charlotte Bronte. The Gaskell special collection at Central Library includes first editions, translations and personal items such as letters and books owned by Elizabeth. Romantics may appreciate one of Elizabeth’s music manuscripts which features a handwritten message from her soon to be husband William- “Let me take you somewhere where I can have you to myself”.  In contrast, animal lovers may prefer ‘The Cat’ by Lady Cust, a feline husbandry book in which Elizabeth has written notes on how to treat her sick cat. Lights[lungs] and oats appear to be her favourite remedies for feline illnesses. In addition to the material in the Gaskell Collection itself the library holds runs of Household Words and All The Year Round where several of her works first appeared in serial form.

View the list of works in the Elizabeth Gaskell Collection at Manchester Central Library here.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s fiction provides an understanding of Manchester in the 1830s and 40s and Central Library is very proud of it’s collection celebrating her life and work. There is an archive at the John Rylands Library and you can also visit the home she owned on Plymouth Grove in Longsight.

Thursday 9th April 2020

Fashion Periodicals Collection

La Belle Assemble was a women’s magazine published monthly from 1806 to 1837 – a time when shops (open or otherwise) were relatively few and far between.
It included fashion plates which illustrated outfits worn by ladies of rank as well as the latest styles. The first plates were printed in black and white, but from November 1806 the magazine came out in two forms, uncoloured at 2s 6d or hand coloured at 3s 6d. Ladies would take the plates to their own dressmaker so that similar outfits could be made up for them.

The magazine employed the best fashion artists in England including the portrait painter Arthur William Devis.
La Belle Assemblee’s fashion plates are now included in museum’s collections around the world.

The journal is part of Manchester Central Library’s collection of fashion periodicals which range from The Lady’s Magazine and Ackermann’s Repository from the Regency period to modern titles such as Elle and a complete collection of Vogue. In addition, if you want to discover what the majority of the population rather than the social and fashionable elite, were wearing, then we have a collection of mail order catalogues from the 1950s to the 1970s – there will definitely be some terrifying, but all too familiar outfits in these if you are of a certain age. We will be featuring examples from this collection, when Central Library re-opens.

Thursday 2nd April 2020

William Shakespeare : Second Folio (1632)

Shakespeare died in 1616 at which point only a small number of dubious editions of his plays had been issued – what the First Folio described as “stol’n and surreptitious copies.” He did not plan or expect his works to survive his death, much less to still be performed, read and studied over 400 years later. That they are, is largely due to two of his associates who collected them together in the First Folio (1623), thus saving them from either disappearing into obscurity or surviving only in bastardized versions.

Manchester has a facsimile edition of the First Folio but original copies of the Second (1632) and Fourth (1685) – the Third Folio was published in 1663 and many unsold copies were destroyed in the Great Fire of London.

The Second Folio was published by a five-man syndicate led by stationer Robert Allot as a number of different individuals were rights holders for certain of the plays – it was printed by Thomas Cotes, and differing numbers of copies were published depending on the involvement of the principals. Robert Allot being the main instigator of the project had the majority of the copies printed in his name – the surviving copy in Manchester being one of these.

Although all four of the folios followed the now traditional arrangement of the plays there were many changes – around 1700 between Folios 1 and 2 for example. One other notable feature of the 2nd Folio is the poem Epitaph on the Admirable Dramatick Poet … the first poem published by John Milton.

This and many of the other items featured in this blog will be available to view in regular handling sessions and examine on the re-opening of Central Library – hopefully sooner rather than later.

Monday 30th March 2020

Vesalius : Fabrica (1555 ed.)

Recently we have all of necessity become interested in what’s happening inside our bodies so we thought it would be appropriate to focus on a book which is generally regarded as one of the first accurate anatomy texts – the mid-16th Century De Humani Corporis Fabrica.

Vesalius practised in Padua where he would lecture whilst an assistant would perform the dissection of a human corpse – still a relatively rare occurrence. Much of the then contemporary knowledge was based on the works of the 2nd Century Greek physician Galen, who had based much of his work on observation of the interior structure of dogs or monkeys with all the potential pitfalls such an approach entails.

Crucially Vesalius’s work coincided with artistic and technological developments, in particular the ability to produce highly detailed woodcut images, produced from illustrations now widely regarded to have been created in Titian’s studio.  These demonstrated in forensic detail for the first time the inner structure of the skeleton, musculature, blood and nervous systems – although this is often justly recognised to be the first accurate anatomical text there was still much to discover – Vesalius, for example, still asserting that veins and arteries carried different types of blood.

Of course Vesalius worked at a time when, as mentioned above, dissection was still extremely rare and largely frowned upon by religious authorities in Europe – indeed nearly 300 years later Burke and Hare were still able to run a thriving grave-robbing business, before graduating later to cutting out the middle-man by performing 16 murders in order to provide corpses to anatomists. Interestingly (or ghoulishly depending on your point of view) Burke’s skin was used to bind a notebook and there was a 19th Century fad for binding other texts in human skin – at least one such copy of Fabrica survives, though not, you will probably be pleased to hear in Manchester Central Library