Today, Basil Champneys' beautiful building holds one of the finest collections of rare books, manuscripts and archives in the world. In addition to the major collections of Spencer, Crawford, Christie and Bullock, holdings have been significantly enriched by the gift, permanent loan or purchase of several important entire libraries belonging to both institutions and individuals.
The collections encompass almost all the landmarks of printing - magnificent illustrated books, every stage in the development of typography, key historical texts and exquisite bookbindings. They cover a wide range of subjects: theology and philosophy; economic, social, political and military history; travel and exploration; literature, drama and music; art and architecture; science and medicine.
The John Rylands Library also pioneered the wider provision of access to rare books and manuscripts through exhibitions, lectures and visits. The Bulletin of the John Rylands Library was established in 1903 and continues to publish scholarly articles concerning the collections and related subjects. Efforts to make the Library more accessible have culminated in the recent Unlocking the Rylands project.
Holdings of individual manuscript items now cover more than fifty languages, including all major European and Middle Eastern languages and numerous Far Eastern ones. They span more than five millennia and are written on virtually every medium ever employed, including clay, papyrus, parchment, vellum, linen, palm leaves, copper, ivory, felt, bark and bamboo.
The library first acquired archive collections in the 1920s when local landed families were invited to donate or deposit their papers. In addition to collections of family documents and private papers, the library now holds the archives of numerous companies, business associations, trade unions, charities, social organizations and religious institutions and is continually adding to its wealth of archives relating to recent and contemporary literature.
The decline in the Lancashire cotton industry dramatically reduced the value of the investments left by Mrs Rylands. A long period of financial struggle led to the merger in 1972 of the John Rylands Library with The Manchester University Library. The Special Collections of the former University Library were transferred to Deansgate, among them the extensive Christie Library. The University Library also contained an important collection of early medical books and the archive of the Manchester Guardian.
The University of Manchester Library continues to collect books, manuscripts and archives. The most significant additions since 1972 have been the deposit of the Methodist Archives and the creation of the Modern Literary Archives. The establishment of The University of Manchester in 2004 has brought Special Collections from the Joule Library, formerly part of UMIST, into the library.