Pictures from the Rylands Library
Blueprint for a Library stella halkyard
Now, of course, I can’t remember what possessed my teenage self to walk into the John Rylands Library in the late 1970s. It wasn’t something any of my family had done before me, though their nimble Lancastrian fingers had for generations bleached, dyed, spun and woven cotton in factories like those that were the source of the Rylands’ wealth. Nor was I consciously in search of poetry. At that time the poets I knew best were more likely to be found on the streets rocking against racism. But by stepping into the rosy-gloom of this shrine to learning something in me took root. It became my ‘corner of the world’ (Gaston Bachelard) and my blueprint for a library. Ever since it has been a haunt to which I have returned to read, study and, most unlikely, spend the lion’s share of a working life as an employee. Until now, that is, when a pandemic has locked it down and shut me out.
Yet, ‘places write themselves upon memory’ and the Rylands dwells in me as a ‘palimpsest of association’ (Janet Donohoe) that can be returned to and explored at will. In my mind’s eye as I climb the thirty feet of staircase I see the play of late afternoon sunshine filter onto sandstone. Crossing the threshold into the Reading Room the ‘spatial extravagance’ (Nicholas Pevsner) of its soaring vaults impresses. Alcoves tuck in left and right, college-wise, providing nooks to ‘hold the shape of a reader’s body and contain their thoughts’ (Alberto Manguel). A panoply of sixty stone and stained glass men – pictured as white (erroneously in some cases) – look down from their niches, clutching the texts that made their names. Their collective account of knowledge, fraught with a ‘weight of absence’ (Manguel), countered by the richness of the collection that surrounds them. This ‘vast organism’ (Jorge Luis Borges) snakes its way for over sixty-five kilometres around its labyrinthine lair, spanning four millennia, speaking over fifty languages, and preserving intact many human achievements and histories that ‘reflect a plurality of identities’ (Manguel).
And so the reverie dissolves, for the real importance of this library and its collection rests not upon the magnificence of its architecture or ‘the number or rarity of the works of which it is composed, but upon the use that is made of them’ (Henry Guppy) by readers who, for now, in the limbo of a pandemic present, remain beyond its doors. Yet one day they will return to weave the fabric of the library’s texts into new combinations and patterns (Matthew Battles) in a process of ‘dialogical interaction’ (Mikhail Bakhtin) that may transform our world and even Make it New.
The Book of Plans and Elevations for the John Rylands Library by Basil
Champneys, 1890. The Copyright of The University of Manchester