(John Rylands Reading Room: via www.manchester.ac.uk )
‘Libraries,’ wrote Francis Bacon in 1605, ‘are as the shrines, where all the reliques of the ancient saints, full of true virtue, and that without delusion or imposture, are preserved, and reposed.’ Quoting this, Jennifer Summit, in Memory’s Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern England, presents libraries rather ‘less as inert storehouses of written tradition and rather more as volatile spaces that actively shaped the meanings and uses of books, reading, and the past’.
In Manchester, apart from the Wyndham Lewis exhibition and the Ford Madox Brown murals in the town hall (that attempt failed: there was a one-day event in the Great Hall and it was closed to visitors), Chetham’s and the John Rylands Library were the main items on the menu.
Chetham’s Library was founded in 1653, established under the terms of the will of Humphrey Chetham, ‘a prosperous Manchester textile merchant, banker and landowner’, and is the oldest surviving public library in Britain. In the superb Reading Room, we paused by the famous desk at which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels worked, when the latter was employed at his father’s cotton manufacturing firm – and giving financial support to the Marx family.
In the nineteenth century the library moved to specialise in the history and topography of the north west of England. Its holdings include 120,000 printed items, manuscripts and a huge quantity of ephemera: postcards, theatre programmes, posters, broadsheets and music. Among the individual items are Ben Jonson’s copy of Plato, first editions of Newton, Robert Hooke, Johnson’s Dictionary and Milton’s Paradise Lost, and, in manuscript, Horace Walpole’s account of money spent on his house at Strawberry Hill.
(Volumes of Francis Bacon’s works)
The librarian was properly—and professionally—impressed by all this. So, unprofessionally, was I—but then, who wouldn’t be? And so to the famous John Rylands Library, taking in their Reformation exhibition, with a copy of Luther’s 95 theses, and a handwritten letter from him.
The standard response to the Reading Room in John Rylands was exemplified by the man who came in while I was standing near the exit. ‘Wow’, he said; and once more, for luck, ‘Wow!’ Then the camera phone came out and he clicked continually, like most of the other people there. If I’d thought I could achieve pictures of anything other than light reflected off polished surfaces, I might have done the same. Easier, though, to borrow the Library’s own.
Today is, I notice, the birthday of Elaine Feinstein, poet, biographer, playwright, novelist and translator, who has published over forty books now. Curious the ways by which we come to some writers: relatively recently, I was reading Feinstein’s terrific versions of Marina Tsvetaeva:
this is the last bridge
the last bridging between
water and firm land
and I am saving these
coins for death
for Charon, the price of Lethe
this shadow money
from my dark hand I press
the shadowy darkness of his
shadow money it is
no gleam and tinkle in it
coins for shadows:
the dead have enough poppies
Before Tsvetaeva and her biography of Ted Hughes and scattered pieces in PN Review, it was probably the famous 1959 ‘Letter to Elaine Feinstein’ from Charles Olson (‘Let this swirl—a bit like Crab Nebula—do for now’), addressed to E. B. Feinstein. There was an exhibition at John Rylands Library with some choice morsels from their celebrated collections: they have the Elaine Feinstein archive there:
and there were some tantalising examples in a glass cabinet, including a letter from Allen Ginsberg which began ‘Dear Mr Feinstein’ (those initials again).
In Walden, Henry Thoreau remarked that, ‘The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.’ A good way to preserve the bloom while also strengthening roots and branches, is to light the fire in the belly and brain of boy or girl and set them loose in a library. It’s becoming more difficult, of course, to find one or to find one that’s open or to find one that’s open and has a good stock of books in it. (‘He had read everything’, David Garnett remembered of the novelist and short story writer H. E. Bates, ‘having found most of the world’s literature in Kettering and Rushden public libraries’.)
Governments are notoriously careless or irresponsible about such things and libraries—the common or garden, indispensable neighbourhood libraries—have had a particularly tough time of late, seen by councils of all stripes and sizes as ‘soft’ targets. Those politicians who actually read have their own solid bookshelves, or access to parliamentary facilities, no doubt. But they also seem uncertain about what a library—and, for that matter, a professional librarian—actually is and does. Here’s a clue. A library run by unqualified volunteers is, alas, no longer a library: it has become instead a space containing some books, some computers and some well-meaning people.
(via American Libraries Magazine)
Still, perhaps we have a population as well-educated, knowledgeable and well-informed as it could possibly be? If so, we can probably afford to be so neglectful, ungenerous and short-sighted as to cut education budgets and limit access to learning and run down public libraries, allowing local councils to degrade them as a first response—rather than a last resort—to budget squeezes by central government. If not, not. We should consider, anyway, the possibility that not everybody has access to the internet twenty-four hours a day. Perhaps we should consider another: not everything that people need to know, let alone want to know, is available on the internet in any case, and not every skill can be learned there.
 Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, address to the King at the opening of the Second Book; Jennifer Summit, Memory’s Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 13.
 Details from Chetham’s Library: Three Centuries of the Written Word, edited by Sandra Pisano (London: Scala Arts and Heritage Publishers, reprinted 2016).
 Marina Tsvetaeva, ‘Poem of the End’, section 8 (1924), in Selected Poems, translated by Elaine Feinstein, fourth edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 78-79.
 See Charles Olson, The Collected Prose, edited by Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 250-252.
 Henry David Thoreau, Walden, edited by J. Lyndon Shanley (Princeton and London: Princeton University Press, 1974), 6.
 David Garnett The Familiar Faces (London: Chatto & Windus, 1962), 100.