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Our history

The John Rylands Library was founded by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her husband John Rylands. In 1889 the architect Basil Champneys designed the striking gothic building, which took ten years to build and was opened to public readers on 1 January 1900.

The library became part of The University of Manchester in 1972 and currently holds the Special Collections of The University of Manchester Library. Mrs Rylands' memorial to her husband is now part of the third largest academic library in the United Kingdom, and the Deansgate building houses over 250,000 printed volumes, and well over a million manuscripts and archival items.

[John Rylands, 1801-1888]

John Rylands


His achievements inspired the foundation of the Library.

John Rylands was Manchester's first multi-millionaire. He was a shy man of humble origins, but became one of the most successful businessmen of Victorian England.

John was born at St Helens in 1801. In 1819 he joined his two brothers and their father in founding a textile company, Rylands & Sons. John was the driving force. In 1834 he moved to Manchester, the commercial heart of the cotton industry. Eight years later he took complete control of the business.

[Detail of the John Rylans Library]

Work begins

As a memorial to her husband, Enriqueta Rylands chose to build a public library that would enrich the City's architecture. She purchased a site in the heart of Manchester and work began in 1890.
[The Miller's Tale from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, part of the Spencer Collection]

The Spencer Collection

In 1892 Mrs Rylands purchased the collection of the 5th Earl Spencer. It was generally considered to be the finest library then in private ownership, the core of which had been created by George John Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758-1834).

Comprising 43,000 printed books, including 4,000 printed before 1501, and many notable Bibles the collection cost Mrs Rylands £210,000.

[The Historic Reading Room]

The Library opens

The building was formally dedicated to the public on 6 October 1899 and opened to readers on 1 January 1900.

The initial stock of the Library was 70,000 books and fewer than 100 manuscripts.

[Detail from a 1st century Greek papyrus depicting Hesiod's The Theogony, part of the Crawford Collection]

The Crawford Collection

Nine years after purchasing the Spencer Collection, in 1901, Mrs Rylands paid a further £155,000 for a collection of more than 6,000 manuscripts in some fifty languages assembled by the 25th and 26th Earls of Crawford.

The collection has been referred to as "a bibliographical microcosm of all liberal arts".

[Enriqueta Rylands, 1843-1908]

Enriqueta Rylands


Mrs Rylands continued to support the Library, and on her death in 1908 bequeathed further private collections and an endowment of £200,000 which made possible, by the beginning of the 1920s, the purchase of 180,000 additional books, 3,000 manuscripts and the beginning of a major extension to the rear of the original structure.

[Henry Guppy, 1861-1948]

Family archives deposited

In 1921, Henry Guppy, librarian from 1900 until his death in 1948, laid the foundations for the third major element in the Library's resources when he invited local families to deposit their archives for safe keeping.

At that time there were no county record offices in Lancashire or Cheshire and the Library was one of first institutions to collect historical family records.

[Detail of the Library's interior]

Extensions made to the Library

As the Library's collections grew, the building underwent two further extensions in 1962 and 1970. These were made possible by private benefactions from businessman and philanthropist Sir Isaac Wolfson (1897-1991), and the sale of land to the City of Manchester.

[Manchester University]

Merger with Manchester University Library

Formal and informal links between Manchester University Library and the John Rylands Library has always been close and the University had been providing some financial support since 1949.

It therefore seemed appropriate that a merger of the two libraries should be arranged, and this duly took place in July 1972. Dr Frederick Ratcliffe became the first Director and Librarian of the new John Rylands University Library of Manchester.

[The Library's roof undergoing work]

Library undergoes refurbishment

In 2003 major refurbishment began on the Deansgate building. This included the construction of a new entrance wing, the replacement of over 8000 glass roundels in the windows and the construction of a new pitched roof over the Historic Reading Room.

The project cost over £17 million and was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the European Regional Development Fund and many other partnership donations.

[Detail from inside the newly refurbished Library]

Official reopening of the Library

Broadcaster and journalist Anna Ford, co-Chancellor of The University of Manchester, officially reopened the John Rylands University Library on 20 September 2008.

The project was described by Bill Simpson, University Librarian and Director of the John Rylands Library, as enabling "The University of Manchester to keep the collections in the building created for them over a century ago and make these treasures accessible to all".