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The University of Manchester Library's Mike Kelly shares the challenges of balancing historical aesthetics with contemporary demands at the John Rylands Library.

Rylands library

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02 September 2019 Facilitate Team

The John Rylands Library is woven into the fabric of Manchester’s rich social history as the world’s first industrial city. It bears the name of cotton merchant John Rylands, but it was his widow Enriqueta who spent 10 years building the neo-Gothic library that she gifted to the people of Manchester. 

The University of Manchester Library has managed the grade I listed building since 1972, which houses priceless special collections that span nearly 5,000 years. But it is also a working library, attracting researchers and more than 300,000 people each year from around the world.

The John Rylands Library, which is the University of Manchester’s only grade I listed building, is widely regarded as one of Europe’s finest neo-Gothic buildings.

Recent activity

The library – which first opened in 1900 – underwent a £17 million redevelopment project in 2007 to improve visitor access, upgrade facilities and boost its public profile. 

In the 12 years since, the adjacent Spinningfields commercial business district in the city centre has grown. At the same time, the university and visitors expect more from the library, with the library and university estates teams rethinking how to manage and maintain this unique building.

John Rylands Library

FM model

“Looking after a historic building with multiple uses and varied stakeholders makes for a complex FM model,” explains Mike Kelly, library space development manager. The library employs an in-house facilities team, led by Natasha Kent, that delivers work including cleaning, waste management, security, repairs and contractor management. 

“A facility stakeholder group meets to discuss projects, repairs, building issues and events,” Kelly says. “And Natasha also works with the university’s estates directorate for all hard FM services and external contractors for specialist support.”

Key issues

  • The balance between building repairs, improvement projects and preventative work is key, with contractors and specialists following strict guidelines;
  • The multi-use demands of the space and layout restrictions means setting up for events, catering and modern-day working requirements need extra thought;
  • There are lots of steps, level changes and small lifts so temporary installations (such as filming The Darkest Hour and Peaky Blinders) need careful logistical planning; 
  • Keeping the building free of dust – which attracts insects, contributes to mould and threatens the library’s collection –  is a never-ending job;
  • Working-at-height procedures are required when changing light bulbs and painting and cleaning.
John Rylands Library

Current projects

The refurbishment of the Special Collections Reading Room is a joint project with Kaberry Building and Gardiner & Theobald. The refurbishment will improve the reader experience, security and care of the collections through a redesigned staff workspace –due to complete this month. 

Over the next year the library is undertaking a full assessment of its CCTV, access control and intruder alarm systems. 

Members of the imaging team are working with the facilities team and other colleagues to create a new imaging suite and agile workspace in the library’s Dante room (named after the collection of books and manuscripts from the Italian Renaissance, such as the late 14th century manuscript of Dante’s Canzoni). The space will allow better interaction and consultation with researchers while showcasing the imaging team’s digital work. 

In October, the library will reveal an interactive area that invites people to engage with the collection and promotes self-education. The space, in the Historic Reading Room, will allow people to get close to specific items from the collection and blend analogue and digital displays to interpret a historic collection with contemporary relevance. 

The university estates department works closely with the library to deliver a conservation plan to protect the fabric of this grade I listed building. The current programme of work, which is in its third year, sees vital investment in areas such as roofs, windows and masonry. 

Key considerations

Protecting the building and collections

The John Rylands Library was the first building in Manchester to be lit by electricity (to avoid gas-related fires) and had an air-filtering systems to protect the collections from the polluted air outside.

Enriqueta Rylands insisted that architect Basil Champneys use only the finest stone and wood during the 10-year build for the dramatic arches, intricate statues and stained-glass windows. 

There are bespoke bookcases with a unique locking system that specialists maintain at least once a year. The original Victorian toilets are still in use and must be carefully cleaned and conserved. 

The Rylands’ ‘associational value’ – the connection between the building and its collections – is integral to the library’s appeal, so all staff are invested in its upkeep.

Maximising restricted workplaces

The neo-Gothic building wasn’t designed to cope with the agile working demands of 2019. Rooms are small, unusually shaped and have unalterable features. 

It has thick sandstone walls and floors so providing consistent Wi-Fi coverage and sufficient power points is challenging, which makes the current refurbishment of an environmentally controlled reading room for researchers to access the library’s precious collections particularly delicate.

“The trick is to maintain a healthy balance between people and 

the roles they perform, the physical collections and how we care for 

them while maintaining this iconic yet incredibly delicate grade I listed building,” says Kelly.