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Object of the Month, September 2012

The Manchester Public Free Libraries

A History and Description, and Guide to their Contents and Use (1899)

This September marks the 160th anniversary of the opening of the first Public Free Library in Manchester. The library was the first to operate a free lending service without subscription and Manchester became the first authority to establish a rate-supported public lending and reference library under the Free Libraries Act.

The original home of the Manchester Public Library was the building originally opened by Robert Owen in 1840 as the Hall of Science. This was located in Campfield, near what is now the Air and Space Hall of the Museum of Science and Industry.  In its earlier guise the building had been a focal point for trade union and political activity in Manchester.

This book, published nearly 50 years after the opening of the Campfield Library, commemorates and celebrates the Free Library Movement in Manchester. It details the efforts of its founders and supporters and the achievements and rapid expansion of libraries across Manchester. The book is illustrated with images of founders and supporters and early photographs of reading rooms in various branches, as well as a view of the first building to house the library.

It also reproduces speeches made at the inauguration of the library in 1852 including speeches by first chairman of the committee and Mayor of Manchester Sir John Potter, William Thackeray, Charles Dickens and Librarian Edward Edwards.

The library was funded by subscriptions which ‘eventually reached the large sum of £12,823, of which about £800 was raised by a working men's committee'. A letter of support, and a ‘donation of eighteen handsome volumes', was sent by Prince Albert for the inauguration. The letter stipulated that the books ‘be freely accessible to persons of all classes without distinction'.

The Resolution which was read by Charles Dickens:

‘In this institution, special provision has been made for the working classes by means of a free lending library, this meeting cherishes the earnest hope that the books thus made available will prove a source of pleasure and improvement in the cottages, the garrets, and the cellars of the poorest of our people.'

Chosen by Carrie Gough