How did these books come to Manchester?
The John Rylands Library is home to over 4,000 incunables (books printed with movable metal type before 1501). They form one of the largest and most significant collections of early printed books in the world.
How did these books, printed in towns and cities across Europe, find their way to Manchester? We owe it largely to two collectors with great wealth, ambition and taste: George John, 2nd Earl Spencer, and Enriqueta Augustina Rylands, founder of the John Rylands Library. Over a thirty-five year period from 1788, Lord Spencer created one of the greatest private libraries in the world at Althorp in Northamptonshire. His main interests were in collecting English 'black-letter' printing, especially the works of William Caxton, continental incunables, and books printed in Venice by Aldus Manutius and his successors. In 1892 his grandson, the 5th Earl Spencer, sold the entire collection to Enriqueta Rylands for £210,000. Until the new library was completed in 1899, the books were stored at Mrs Rylands's home, Longford Hall in Stretford. Despite comments that the collection would be wasted on the people of Manchester and would suffer in its polluted atmosphere, the collection has been extensively studied for over a century.
As well as the Spencer Collection, incunables have come to the Library from other sources. Professor Richard Copley Christie bequeathed his collection to the University of Manchester in 1901. It included an unrivalled set of virtually all the Greek texts published in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Even now the Library seeks to develop its early printed collections by gift and selective purchase.
Today these books are available for scholars to study and for visitors to enjoy. The books are housed in fire-proof, air-conditioned stores to ensure that they will survive for many centuries to come. Highly skilled conservators care for the collections, and make bespoke boxes to protect delicate bindings. The books are described on the Library's online catalogue (catalogue.library.manchester.ac.uk) and on ISTC (www.bl.uk/catalogues/istc). We are also digitizing many of our incunables to make them available via the Internet. In these various ways we are making the collection more accessible to the present generation, while preserving it for future generations.