|An important British library, which serves the city and the region, and one of the largest outside London, it has an extensive collection of books for lending and for reference, as befits a major university city. It also houses audio-visual material and exhibitions.|
Manchester had been the first local authority in Britain to introduce a public lending and reference library, under powers granted by the Public Libraries & Museums Act of 1850. Lending of books was free, costs being supported by ratepayers.
The existing building came as a result of many years searching for a suitable place to house Manchester's growing collection of books and printed materials. Amongst these are 30 incunabula - books printed before 1501. It also houses the Library Theatre, a café, shop and Local Studies Unit.
It was designed by London architect E. Vincent Harris, who won the competition for its design as well as the adjacent Town Hall Extension (built later). The foundation stone of the library was laid by Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald in 1930, and it was officially opened by King George V on 17 July 1934. It is regarded as one of Harris's most confident and impressive buildings - a Manchester landmark which dominates St Peter's Square, and commands an imposing position when approaching from the south along one of Manchester's busiest thoroughfares, Oxford Street.
The building was constructed as an underlying 4 storey high steel frame, clad in Portland stone, and rising 90 feet, with attic and storage facilities below ground. It is clearly influenced by the Pantheon in Rome. Rustication is employed on the two lower floors to give the whole building a feeling of massiveness and strength. Above this level are two storeys behind giant Doric columns
Its southern front is dominated by an imposing 5 bay portico of Corinthian columns with rounded arches at each side. On top is a large domed glass roof covering the central reading room, (similar to that at the British Museum), but this is hidden from street level by a higher surrounding lead-covered roof. Harris also designed the furniture which is in evidence throughout the building. It cost some £410,000 and the site on which it stands cost £187,800.
It is also home to an extensive local history collection and a wide range of specialist materials for visually and hearing impaired people is available. It also has a Chinese book collection, reflecting the large ethnic influence in Chinatown which is nearby.