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The Creation of the Library

The first task facing Humphrey Chetham’s governors was to purchase the medieval College House, which, after many years of neglect, was in a poor state. During the Civil War it had been used as a prison and arsenal, and it was remarked that ‘the towne swine make there abode bothe in the yards and house’. The restoration was carried out by local craftsmen, and a joiner named Richard Martinscroft was entrusted with the task of fitting and furnishing the Library.

The Library was housed on the first floor in order to avoid rising damp, and the newly acquired books were chained to the bookcases, or presses, in accordance with Chetham’s own instructions. Twenty-four carved oak stools with ‘S’-shaped hand-holds were provided as portable seats for readers.

In 1655 three of the governors were nominated to choose books, manuscripts and archives for the Library. Almost all of the early acquisitions were bought from a single London bookseller and were packed tightly into old barrels to protect them on the journey. In the first thirty years the Library bought heavily in theology, law, history, medicine and science, and acquired an impressive collection of manuscripts. The aim was to build up as quickly as possible a collection that would meet the needs of the clergy, lawyers and doctors of Manchester and the surrounding towns.

On arrival the books were listed by the Librarian and placed on the presses in size order: large books at the bottom and small ones at the top. No proper catalogue was published until 1791, and even then the books were listed only by subject and size. To make matters worse, the catalogue was written in Latin. By the mid-eighteenth century the Library’s collection had outgrown the original shelves and the presses were increased in height. The practice of chaining was abandoned and, instead, gates were put up to prevent theft. From then on, material was brought to the Reading Room for study, a practice which continues today. The original system of alphabetically labelling each press may still be seen on the oak panels, along with some traces of the early hinges and plates for the chains. This fixed location system is still used today, in conjunction with our electronic catalogue.