Libraries History of Central Library

Designing and Building the Central Library

For a number of reasons, including the outbreak of World War I, there was no further progress on a new building until 1926, when a competition was held for the design of an extension to the Town Hall, together with a new library, which was won by E. Vincent Harris (1876-1971), a well-respected municipal architect. Harris's work has been described by the noted architectural historian John Archer as revealing a creative and original modern spirit'. He worked very closely with Stanley Jast and Charles Nowell, the Chief Librarians, on the unusual design of the building, which was strongly influenced by visits to American libraries.

E Vincent Harris

E. Vincent Harris, 1934 m73333

The Town Hall Extension and Central Library were designed to complement each other, although the style of the two buildings is very different. Harris was a great admirer of Roman architecture and Central Library is often compared to Emperor Hadrian's Pantheon in Rome . The building was constructed on a steel frame with reinforced concrete floors and is faced with Portland stone. The most striking features are the main entrance - a huge, two-storey portico with six columns - and the colonnade around the second and third floors.

"As the paper came off the press the Evening News ponies tore out into Cross Street delivering the newspapers (in high yellow dog-carts) to the railway stations and the wholesalers. Working horses were still quite common in the city. The Transport Department carried parcels in a horse-drawn van, which came into Van Dock every morning. At times the horse left a memento of its visit - which keen gardeners amongst the porters rapidly collected into a bucket." (Elizabeth Leach, former member of staff)

It is one of Vincent Harris's most confident, assured and bombastic essays in the Roman Imperial manner ... the ingenuity of Harris's design is seen in the way he has placed this grand space, with its Tuscan colonnade of Sienna scagliola, on top of the stacks as in the American Library of Congress and in defiance of the then fashion of creating book towers on top of reading rooms (Clare Hartwell, Manchester, 2001)

"It was discovered by an appalled staff that there were no workrooms on the floors adjacent to the service department, only the librarian of the reference library itself being lucky enough to have an office ... It was a poor thing to discover that the much vaunted new Central Library was deficient in so important a matter." The librarian's place is in his department", was the unsympathetic answer received, and like men who had been soldiers they bore their troubles with continued grumbles - and sorted out among the stacks a score of retreats vastly superior to offices, for they could be warned of an hostile approach." (Hilda McGill, former member of staff)

Harris's design created a feeling of light, space and openness in the library, using modern techniques such as the 'plenum system' of heating and ventilation, which left the floors and walls free of radiators and pipework. The fittings, metalwork and furniture were all of the highest quality. Hopton Wood stone from Derbyshire lines the internal walls, much of the joinery is oak or English walnut, while the metalwork is largely bronze.

Constructing the Central Library, 1931-1934


"The steelwork of the new library was etched in intricate tracery against the blue, a vast web in which men were entangled here and there like flies fatally meshed. Through a gap in the boarding she looked down into the great hole out of which the building was rising, and whistled jauntily. It was grand to look at. Men wheeling barrows, men running up ladders, men clambering about the web, walking like tight-rope experts across precarious gulfs; cranes grunting and lifting and moving their tall fingers in wide arcs upon the sky; shrill whistles of command, brisk rattle of hammer on steel and slither of chains upon pulleys all grand to look at in the blue-and-white morning." (Shabby Tiger, by Howard Spring, 1934)

"It became the boast of the reference library that they were removed to the new building without a break in service to the public. This was achieved because in 1934 authorities were able to indicate to the Labour Exchanges that they required a squad of able-bodied men to report for duty at eight am or eight pm as the case might be, and their wishes were immediately fulfilled.

The operation was undertaken at night so that the normal traffic of the city would have least disruption, and as it had been planned so it proved to be. In three weeks over a million books and manuscripts, files and periodicals had been carried almost entirely by hand from one place to the other: only in times of serious depression when manpower was plentiful could such an operation be successfully concluded. In the meantime the denuded reference library functioned as best it could, and service was of such a calibre that a book that had already been transported might be brought back to Piccadilly at a reader's behest." (Hilda McGill, former member of staff)

"When it was being built the public were very intrigued about its final appearance - they were used to rectangular buildings and the shape of the girders used seemed to make little sense. It was called various names, e.g. the Corporation Wedding Cake (it seemed to sparkle white surrounded by black buildings) and the St. Peter's Square Gasometer, but the citizens were very proud of it. I remember families coming in first to "gawp"... Under the portico became a favourite trysting place. In all, the shape of the building was its best advertisement and it was never necessary to put a notice 'Public Library' on the outside."(Leslie Smyth, former member of staff)

See our Local Image Collection for pictures of Central Library

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