An interview with Fergus Wilde, the Librarian

Librarian Fergus Wilde has worked at Chetham’s Library for close to thirty years and in May he will begin his well-deserved retirement. Before he leaves to start this new adventure, we took the opportunity to ask Fergus about his role, career highlights and why Chetham’s Library is so special, not just in Manchester, but in the world. We’re now on the look out for a new Librarian who will lead the strategic development and day-to-day management of the Library. Find out more and apply.

How long have you worked at Chetham’s Library and what does your role involve?

“I started work at Chetham’s Library as Senior Librarian in 1997. Thanks to a confusing tradition, ‘Senior Librarian’ is junior to ‘the Librarian’, who is usually expected to be the boss. The Library cares for around 35,000 items printed before 1801, and around 80,000 printed books in total. When I joined, the catalogue of items was a confusing mass of different resources in print and typescript, and so my main role was to create a fully searchable online catalogue. That took about 15 years of people’s labour and about eight people worked on it over time. Tours, visits, looking after readers and answering queries occupied the rest of the days. I took over as Librarian in 2019.”

 What makes this Library so special?

“Chetham’s is the oldest surviving public library in the country, and the oldest in the world outside a couple of wonderful civic institutions in Italy. Humphrey Chetham (1580-1653) founded it ‘for the use of scholars and others well affected to resort unto’ in his will, and his Feoffees – the executors of his will and its successors – had the library open to the public by 1655. Its collections are ‘designated as having National and International Importance’ under the Arts Council Scheme, and we’re an Accredited Museum. The books bought by the successive generations of Feoffees still sit on the shelving installed in the 1650s, and readers still use the original furniture.  We’re also an archival repository, housing a wealth of historical material from medieval deeds to guides to the Belle Vue Zoo. There’s really nothing quite like it.”

 What are your career highlights or memorable moments?

“Highlights are often linking up material with the experts who can bring out the knowledge within them; when we get the thanks of researchers in their books or are able to bring out something that will crack open a research question; when we’re able to make real connections that advance knowledge of the world, even by small increments. That and all the cups of coffee.”

 What do you plan to do with your retirement?

“Get outdoors more! The hills await! And, perhaps unexpectedly, read more books. Running a library doesn’t mean being able to read what you like, so lots to catch up on that I’ve not been able to pursue while at my desk here.”



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  1. Jon

    There’s hearty lads among yon hills! Best wishes for your retirement Fergus, it was good to see you in the library again the other day.

  2. Colin-Miles Edgar

    1655, HMMM.
    I have written to you about Innerpeffray Library. pre 1681
    I fell in love with it on a winters day in 2005.
    We had nearly killed ourselves on a salted but un melted patch of skiddy snow at Kinkell Bridge.
    Three books attracted me: Thelfall’s Foure Footed Beasts [See St Peter in Gaza].
    Montrose’s personal copy of Raleigh’s History of the World
    The Bible in French 1630 or James 1st Lord Madderty’s Il Cortegione by Balthasar Castiglione, given him by Gilbert Lord Glamis in?1610 [I forget, I am in my 80th year].
    This love was returned by 4ish wondrous years as jointy Keepr with my wife, the noted social history author, Anne Edgar.
    We claim “Oldest free public lending”, can you?

  3. Colin-Miles Edgar

    I did repeat.
    Innerpeffray has is known internationally.
    So my query is worth repeating .
    Are the two libraries pari passu or not?
    If not, where not on the terms I asked.?
    Colin-Miles Edgar.
    Nver trust IT, even if you are a Sub Post master of impeccable character.

    • ferguswilde

      Thanks Colin-Miles! We haven’t had any email yet this year, sadly, still working on that. No, Chetham’s has always been a reference library, and indeed was a chained library throughout until around 1750. It’s been open to the public since 1655. Oldest free public lending library may well be one of many crowns belonging to Innerpeffray, which I still hope to visit in person before too long.

  4. Peter Fothergill

    I wish you a very happy retirement. We met some years ago in 2011/12 when I visited with my friend Martin as we were donating the Spurrier/Fothergill Room to the new Music School. At the time I asked if you could remember and try to locate the old architectural prints/etchings by James Fothergill that used to be on the stairway wall when I was a pupil. It was a long time ago but they were still there when I left in 1964! Before you go I thought I’d ask again as I’m visiting on the 4th April with my grandsons.
    Kind regards,
    Peter Fothergill

    • ferguswilde

      Thanks, Peter! I don’t think we have identified the ones you’re talking about here. Please ask the guide to ask us about it during your visit, which I hope you and your grandsons will enjoy.