John Rylands Library

The John Rylands Library is a Victorian Gothic building on Deansgate in Manchester, England. The library, which opened to the public in 1900, was founded by Mrs Enriqueta Augustina Rylands in memory of her late husband, John Rylands. Since July 1972 the building has served as the Special Collections section of the John Rylands University Library (JRUL).

The collections include exquisite medieval illuminated manuscripts, examples of the earliest forms of European printing, including the Gutenberg Bible, and the personal papers of notable local figures such as Elizabeth Gaskell and John Dalton.

There have been four extensions to the building, the last of which was completed in 2007.


Enriqueta Rylands purchased a site on Deansgate, at the heart of Manchester city centre, in 1889 for her planned memorial library and commissioned a design from architect Basil Champneys. Mrs Rylands had originally intended the library as a principally theological collection and the building, which is a very fine example of Victorian Gothic, has much of the appearance of a church, although the actual concept was of an Oxford college library on a larger scale. The core of the library was formed around the collection of 40,000 books including many rarities assembled by George John Spencer, which Mrs Rylands purchased in 1892. The library was finally opened to readers on 1 January 1900.

The building

By the 19th century Manchester had become a prosperous textile manufacturing town and the demands of cotton manufacturing stimulated the growth of engineering and chemical industries. The town had become 'abominably filthy' and was 'often covered, especially during the winter, with dense fogs ... there is at all times a copious descent of soots and other impurities'. This, along with the overcrowded site, created many design problems for the architect. During the century most textile manufacture tended to move to newer mills in the other towns of the district while Manchester itself remained the centre of trading in cotton goods both for the home and foreign trades. Pollution from the burning of coal and gas remained a considerable nuisance even in the 1890s.

The site, chosen by Mrs. Rylands to be in a central and fashionable part of the city, was awkward in shape and orientation and surrounded by tall warehouses, derelict cottages and narrow streets. The proposed position was criticised by many for its lack of surrounding space and the fact that the valuable manuscript collections were to be housed in "that dirty, uncomfortable city... not enough light to read by, and the books they already have are wretchedly kept" (written in 1901 about the Crawford MSS.) Mrs. Rylands had negotiated Deeds of Agreement with her neighbours to fix the heights of future adjacent buildings. The permissible height of the buildings on the library site was fixed at just over thirty-four feet, but it was suggested that it could be taller at the centre if there was an open area around the edges, at the height of the buildings that had been demolished to make way for the construction. Champneys incorporated this suggestion into his design, building the two towers of the main facade twelve feet back from the boundary and keeping the entrance block low, to allow light into the library. He also designed the building in a series of tiered steps with an almost flat roof to give a 'liberal concession' to the neighbours' 'right to light'. When the library was opened, the main reading room on the first floor, thirty feet above the ground and twelve feet from all four boundaries, was noted for the pleasant contrast between the 'sullen roar' of Manchester and the 'internal cloister quietude of Rylands'. It was lit by oriel windows in the reading alcoves supplemented by high clerestory windows along both sides.

The building was constructed of Cumbrian sandstone, the interior a delicately-shaded 'Shawk' stone (from Dalston, varying between sand and a range of pinks) and the exterior, dark red Barbary stone from Penrith, built around an internal steel framed structure and brick arched flooring. The red 'Barbary plain' sandstone, which Champneys believed 'had every chance of proving durable' for the exterior, was an unusual choice in late Victorian Manchester. It did, however, prove relatively successful, as an inspection by Champneys in 1900 revealed little softening by the 'effects of an atmosphere somewhat charged with chemicals' although, by 1909 some repairs were needed.

Champneys also suggested to Mrs. Rylands that, in order to protect the valuable books and manuscripts, 'it will be very desirable to keep the air in the interior of the building as clear and free from smoke and chemical matter (both of which are held in the air of Manchester) as may be possible'. The ground floor had been built with numerous air inlets and, although his client felt that it would prove impossible to exclude foul air, Champneys installed jute or hessian screens to trap the soot, with water sprays to catch the sulphur and other chemicals, which was a very advanced system for the period. Internal screen doors were employed in the entrance hall to prevent the air being 'fouled by the opening of the outer doors' with internal swing doors between the circulation areas and the main library to 'preserve the valuable books from injury. By 1900 the ventilation system had evolved to include electric fans to draw in air at pavement level through coke screens sprayed with water.

Electric lighting was chosen as the cleanest and safest alternative to gas but, as the use of electricity was still in its early stages, the supply had to be generated on-site. This took some years to achieve due to the inexperience of local contractors, but the library became one of the first public buildings in Manchester to be lit by electricity and continued to generate its own supply until 1950.

The embellishments in the reading room and elsewhere included two large stained glass windows with portraits of many notable religious and secular figures, designed by C. E. Kempe; a series of statues in the reading room by Bridgeman's of Lichfield; and bronzework in the art nouveau style by Singer of Frome. The portrait statues of John and Enriqueta Rylands in white marble, which can be seen in the reading room, were sculpted by John Cassidy who also executed the allegorical group of 'Theology, Science and Art' in the vestibule.

Aside from the Main Library section and reading room with gallery above, the design incorporated Bible and map rooms on the first floor, and conference (lecture) and committee rooms on the ground floor. Part of the ground floor was planned as a lending library but never operated as such (a caretaker's house also formed part of the building until it was demolished for the extension of 1969).

Champneys was given the rare honour of speaking about the building at a general meeting of the Royal Institute of British Architects and was awarded the Royal Gold Medal in 1912. The library was granted listed building status on 25 January 1952, which was upgraded to Grade I on 6 June 1994.

There have been four extensions to the original building:

  • The first was designed by the original architect and completed in 1920.
  • The Lady Wolfson Building opened in 1962.
  • A third extension was built to the south of the first in 1969 but this was demolished in 2004.
  • A substantial new wing was built on the south-west of the site between 2004 and 2007 with the aid of funding from a number of sources. This project (Unlocking the Rylands) also included refurbishment of parts of the existing building and the erection of a pitched roof over the reinforced concrete roof. A pitched roof was part of Champneys's original design but was not built as Mrs. Rylands was advised that an internal stone vault would reduce the fire risk.
The collections

The foundations of the Library's collections were the Althorp Library of Lord Spencer acquired in 1892 and a part of the Bibliotheca Lindesiana purchased from James Lindsay, 26th Earl of Crawford of Haigh Hall in 1901. The Bibliotheca Lindesiana was one of the most impressive private collections in Britain at the time, both for its size and for the rarity of some of the materials it contained. The manuscript collections (including Chinese and Japanese printed books) were sold in 1901 to Mrs. Rylands for the John Rylands Library.

The collections include exquisite medieval illuminated manuscripts, examples of the earliest forms of European printing including a fine paper copy of the Gutenberg Bible and a collection of books printed by William Caxton, as well as the personal papers of distinguished historical figures including Elizabeth Gaskell, John Dalton and John Wesley. Nothing is known of the early history of this copy of the Gutenberg Bible before it was acquired by the 2nd Earl Spencer.

The library also houses the papyrus fragments known as the Rylands Papyri and documents from North Africa. The most notable of these are the St John Fragment, believed to be the oldest extant New Testament document, Rylands Library Papyrus P52, the earliest fragment of the canonical Gospel of John text, the earliest fragment of Septuagint - Papyrus Rylands 458, and Papyrus Rylands 463, a manuscript fragment of the apocryphal Gospel of Mary. Minuscule 702, ε2010 (von Soden), is a Greek minuscule manuscript of the New Testament, on parchment.

The collection of incunabula numbers about 4,500, of which about 3000 came from Lord Spencer's collection.


Librarians at John Rylands before its merger include Edward Gordon Duff in 1899 and 1900 and Henry Guppy between 1899 and 1948 (joint Librarian with Duff until 1900). Duff was responsible for the original library catalogue, compiled between 1893 and 1899: Catalogue of the Printed Books and Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library, Manchester; ed. E. G. Duff. Manchester: J. E. Cornish, 1899. 3 vols. Dr Guppy began publication of the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library in 1903; it later became a journal publishing academic articles and from autumn 1972 the title was changed to the Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester (further slight changes have occurred since). Other noteworthy members of staff were James Rendel Harris, Alphonse Mingana, the Semitic scholar Professor Edward Robertson (d. 1964) who was the third librarian, and Moses Tyson, keeper of western manuscripts, afterwards librarian of Manchester University Library. Stella Butler, a medical historian, was head of special collections from 2000 until she moved to the University of Leeds in 2011 as University Librarian.


Many notable people including heads of state have visited the library. Charles, Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall came in recent times.

  • Archer, John H. G., ed. (1986) Art and Architecture in Victorian Manchester: ten illustrations of patronage and practice. Manchester: Manchester University Press ISBN 071900957X (includes a study of the John Rylands Library by John Madden)
  • Bowler, Catherine; Brimblecombe, Peter (2000). "Environmental pressures on building design and Manchester's John Rylands Library". Journal of Design History (The Design History Society) 13 (3): 175–191. doi:10.1093/jdh/13.3.175. 
  • Farnie, D. A. (1989) "Enriqueta Augustina Rylands (1843–1908), Founder of the John Rylands Library", in: Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester LXXI,2 (summer 1989; pp. 3–38
  • Guppy, Henry (1924) The John Rylands Library (1899–1924): a record of its history with brief descriptions of the building and its contents. Manchester: University Press
  • Guppy, Henry (1929) "How Commerce has Assisted Culture Through the John Rylands Library", in: The Soul of Manchester. Manchester: U. P.; pp. 113–123
  • Guppy, Henry (1935) The John Rylands Library (1899–1935): a brief record of its history with descriptions of the building and its contents. Manchester: University Press
  • McNiven, Peter (2000) "The John Rylands Library, 1972–2000" in: Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester LXXXII,2-3 (summer & autumn 2000); pp. 3–79
  • McNiven, Peter (2000) "An Illustrated Catalogue of 'A Scholars' Paradise: a Centenary Exhibition of Notable Books and Manuscripts' " in: Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester LXXXII,2-3 (summer & autumn 2000); pp. 85–254
  • Parkinson-Bailey, John J. (2000). Manchester: an architectural history. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-5606-3. 
  • Sotheby's (1988) Books from the John Rylands University Library of Manchester: day of sale April 14, 1988. London: Sotheby's (98 works were offered for sale, of which a few remained unsold; all the books were rare duplicate copies; the funds raised were used to establish the John Rylands Research Institute in 1989)
  • Taylor, Frank (1989) "The John Rylands Library, 1936-72" in: Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester LXXI,2 (summer 1989); pp. 39–66
  • Tyson, Moses (1941) "The First Forty Years of the John Rylands Library" in: Bulletin of the John Rylands Library; vol. XXV, pp. 46–66
  • News from the Rylands: the newsletter of the Special Collections Division of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester. No. 1, winter 2000, etc. Replacing the John Rylands Research Institute Newsletter; 1990-1999.


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