The Portico Library first opened its doors in 1806. It is a 215-year-old independent subscription library bragging a classical, pillared façade original structure on Mosley Street, at the heart of Manchester, England. A Grade II listed building, the Library was designed by Thomas Harrison, the architect who also designed the Lyceum in Liverpool. Historically a fashionable area lined with moneyed homes and fine churches, the location is still trendy, with extravagant bars and restaurants replacing the homes and churches of old. Manchester is lucky to house such a cultural centrepiece, especially one that is a charity and relies on public donations for its continued support.
The Library is home to a diverse and intriguing programme of exhibitions and events, as well as its unique collection of over 25,000 books, an ever-growing archive (with a wide selection of travel literature), and illustrations spanning a period of over 450 years. Since its founding, the Library has been at the intersection of culture, history, and modernity. The sense of history — both of the library and the city — permeate its storied architecture and contents. This is not to say the Library is stuffy, old-fashioned, or haughty. Upon entering, you are immediately greeted by the courteous, informative, and welcoming staff who are passionate about the Library’s past and its future and do all they can to make the space as accessible as possible.
The main room is spacious, and if you look up you will see the iconic domed ceiling. I sat at a table while enjoying a coffee and writing my review, and food can be eaten anywhere in the library. The Portico Café has a great menu, and the food is excellent (I can attest to this as I have visited several times). Interestingly, the cafe also serves alcohol, which was forbidden when the Library was founded in 1806. Unfortunately, the café must remain closed in line with Covid-19 restrictions. They hope to commence serving food and drinks again from 17th May 2021.
There is also a thriving community of over 400 members and researchers, with available packages ranging from a one-week reader’s card to a lifetime membership. By choosing to visit the Library you are following in the footsteps of John Dalton, Peter Mark Roget, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emmeline Pankhurst, Richard Cobden, Robert Peel, Val McDermid, and Eric Cantona, to name but a few.
Early subscribers included the full spectrum of Mancunian and British politics: radicals, liberals and conservatives, and people of different faiths; but it excluded women for many decades and under-represented people of colour and the working class. Thankfully, this has now changed; the Library is now an actively anti-racist institution. Today, the Library interrogates world history and its 21st-century legacies through a collaborative programme of public activities with Manchester’s diverse communities. Both its staff and volunteers are committed to helping everyone make the most of the collection and building, and to fulfilling the Library’s charitable objectives:
“For the advancement of education, literacy, the diffusion of knowledge, and the provision of literature for the development and the widening of public interest in matters of literacy, artistic, scientific and technical interest of every kind”.
The Portico Library collection offers a unique insight into the minds of those who contributed to the development of the region at a time when late Georgian and Victorian Manchester helped to shape the sinews of the British Empire. Access is free for researchers whose areas of interest intersect with the collection's contents and staff are always on-hand to assist with enquiries. The Library relies on volunteers to help conserve books. Subscribers can take books out, but this is on a case-by-case basis. The Library runs an “adopt-a-book scheme” - many of the books in the Portico Library's 19th-century collection are in urgent need of repair or rebinding. It is vital that these items are preserved for future generations to learn from and enjoy. Members of the public (and subscribers) can make a difference by donating to Endangered Books. This helps the Portico to source new materials, equipment, and skills to conserve the collections for future generations. In addition to the public programme and members’ services, the Library also runs the prestigious Portico Prize and Portico Sadie Massey Awards, supporting Northern writing and publishing, and nurturing a lifelong love of learning among young people.
In 2019, two nineteenth-century logbooks were discovered in the Library’s archives. These ‘Strangers Books’ are hand-written records of all those who visited the Library between the 1830s and the 1850s. Guests entertained at the Library came from all over the world, including from Brazil, China, India, the Ottoman Empire, Australia, Africa and Cuba, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Despite being in landlocked Manchester, internationalism is at the heart of the Library’s ethos, and it is the connective tissue that binds it to the outside world. A recent exhibition titled What it is to be here: Colonisation and Resistance explored the early encounters and diplomatic negotiations between First Nations Australians and Britain. This exhibit included the voices of Aboriginal people, first editions of Captain James Cook’s diaries (held by the Portico Library), artwork and photographs. To find out more about upcoming physical and online exhibitions, please consult the Portico Quarterly magazine which is available on the Portico’s website.
When I visited, the exhibition on display was Fun & Games: Playtime, Past and Present which included books relating to the history of games and artworks by Birungi Kawooya, Bob Bicknell-Knight, Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, Gray Wielebinski, Hope Strickland and Polly Tayarachakul, plus activities inspired by the Library’s history and collections. These international collaborations often help to counterbalance the fact that the antiquarian books the Library hosts often only tell one side of the story, the dynamism and postcolonial integrity of the institution seeps through its physical and online presence, I wholeheartedly recommend that you spend a few hours both at the Library and on its website!
Beyond the main room, there is the Cobden Reading Room. Named after the manufacturer, Radical and Liberal MP Richard Cobden, this part of the Library is especially cosy, with impressive sculptures of the Portico’s architect Thomas Harrison, and William Gaskell, husband of novelist and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell, and chairman of the Portico Library between 1849 and 1854. I could imagine myself spending hours there in the pleasant quietude of this part of the Library, despite the building being centrally located in the bustling city of Manchester.
Past the Cobden Area is the historic reading room, a tranquil place to work, read, research, and contemplate. This is my favourite part of the Library, although it is only accessible to members. Anyone can apply to use The Portico Library's beautiful 19th-century reading room and view the collection of over 25,000 books, 41 newspapers, and periodicals with a temporary reader's pass, which can be purchased from just £5 per week, or £17.50 per month. The walls are adorned with antiquarian tomes (the oldest and rarest books are located within a locked cabinet) and the furniture is suitably comfy, I cannot wait to return!
To conclude, I would heartily encourage anyone visiting Manchester or the North West to spend a few hours at the Portico Library. You get a compelling sense of the Library’s historical importance in the development of Manchester and modern Britain. The Library helped to educate the city's residents and visitors, and this sense of didacticism and knowledge production and conveyance in its contents, archive, and exhibitions compels you to think about history, culture, industry, and the arts. It is a special place and I hope to continue visiting and attending online events for the rest of my life.
You can visit the Portico Library’s excellent website here: https://www.theportico.org.uk/
You can support the Library by sponsoring a book’s repair through our Adopt-a-Book scheme; making a donation; sign up to volunteer or visiting their online shop.
It is free of charge to the public five days a week and the opening times are: 10am until 4pm.
The gift shop sells: a selection of books, gift wrap, greeting cards, prints, and vouchers
In order to make visiting the Library as safe as possible, it is request that visits are booked in advance using the Portico’s website, though walk-in visits are possible.
The Portico is located on the first floor of its original 200-year-old listed building. It is our priority to ensure the Library can be as welcoming and accessible as possible for everyone. Please read below for current access information about our building.
Anyone can apply to join The Portico Library. The annual subscription fee, which begins from just £67 for students and young people, allows you to enjoy a range of benefits that include:
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Sami Pinarbasi is a PhD historian currently based at London South Bank University. His research examines Manchester and the British West Indies, with a focus on slavery and abolitionism. In his spare time, Sami plays guitar and listens to 60s folk rock. He can be found on Twitter @Sami_Historian