On New Years Day in 1900, a library opened its doors in Manchester. It was a gift to the Mancunians that had been over ten years in the making. Housing over 70 000 books and about 100 manuscripts in the beginning, it was a wife’s tribute to her husband and the beginning of a love story – a love story about books.
Over the course of more than 100 years, the John Rylands Library has become a centerpiece in this vibrant city. In 1834, Manchester was the commercial heart of the cotton industry, propelling it to become the world’s first modern industrialized city. John Rylands (1801-1888) was a driving force in this movement and when he passed away, his wife Enriqueta Rylands (1843-1908) had a vision to establish a major library for Manchester in his honor. She wanted to share the treasures of this library collection with the widest possible audience. She invested time and much of her fortune into building the institution and chose the grand Neo-Gothic architectural style to create an instant cultural heritage for Manchester to rival that of the ancient university cities. It all started with her vision.
One of the most special gifts to give someone is a book you love. And truly, giving someone you love a library is special on another level. Enriqueta’s creation of the John Rylands library was a giant gift that to this day, we can have the pleasure of enjoying every day of the week for free. There are stories told about special people and their lives, there are often monuments erected in their honor…What does it mean to have a library carry on your legacy? Within the library is contained boundless precious resources that encourage our imagination and the pursuit of knowledge more than 100 years after its establishment. A legacy that has inspired generations to pursue learning in the library is powerful and speaks volumes even today.
Even today, the John Rylands library still stands as a pillar of Mancunian city life. Having opened in 1900, its structure survived both World Wars and was eventually purchased by the University of Manchester. It has seen a century’s worth of curious visitors from all walks of life and its walls have lived to tell a million tales. After all these years, it is the people who have worked at the library who have kept it so strong. Fundamentally, if so many continue to invest their time to preserve books and this storied structure, it must be for love. The sheer wonder one feels when walking through the grand walls of the library is unlike any other feeling. The desire to protect this treasure for generations to come is only fueled by a fundamental love of books, reading and libraries. Some may say it’s merely nostalgic but really, it is so much more. This library represents a collective life.
In his essay, “What is an Author?” Michel Foucault discusses the idea of an author’s “work”.
“Even when an individual has been accepted as an author, we must still ask whether everything that he wrote, said, or left behind is part of his work. The problem is both theoretical and technical. When undertaking the publication of Nietzsche's works, for example, where should one stop? Surely everything must be published, but what is "everything"? …What if, within a workbook filled with aphorisms, one finds a reference, the notation of a meeting or of an address, or a laundry list: is it a work, or not? Why not? And so on, ad infinitum. How can one define a work amid the millions of traces left by someone after his death?”
When we consider our life’s work, we can think about it in terms of the differences we’ve made in our communities, maybe in the books that have inspired us, the conversations that we have always remembered or the people we have loved. What is our “everything”? If we aim to encompass the Foucauldian “everything” maybe our life can’t be contained in one work but rather, a series of works contained in a library of our own.
Today is World Book Day in the UK. On this day, let us open the doors of local libraries and let us remember all the love and life times they contain.