When Owens College opened in 1851 at Quay St. in central Manchester, it included a small library. Until after the move to Oxford Road in the early 1870s, the Library was a low-key presence; the College’s resources were initially directed to improving teaching facilities, and there was less money was available for acquiring a substantial library.
The Owens Library collections were built up by private benefactors and enthusiastic academics, and the College was given important collections of James Heywood and William Henry, the renowned chemist and associate of John Dalton, and donated by his son, William Charles Henry in 1851. From the 1870s, these collections were added to with the library of James Prince Lee (1804-1869), first bishop of Manchester,bequeathed in 1870. Lee’s library comprised over 7000 volumes, rich in history, classics and theology, with a unique collection of material on the history and topography of North West England. Other major acquisitions were the collections of Angus Smith (chemistry and physics), Crace Calvert (chemistry), David Forbes (sciences), Mrs. Venables Vernon (astronomy and meteorology), Samuel Robinson and Tobias Theodores (oriental languages), Boyd Dawkins (geology), Edward Freeman (history), Arthur Milnes Marshall (zoology), W. S. Jevons (economics), the Manchester Goethe Society (German), and the Muirhead law library. There were also some highly significant individual items such as a Shakespeare First Folio, donated by Edward Donner in 1898. The Library, which was overseen by a committee, also began to get regular annual grants to purchase more mainstream books and periodicals.
Although a full-time librarian had been in post since 1871, academic staff played an important role in negotiating special acquisitions and , doing specialised cataloguing e.g. Adolphus Ward, the Principal and professor of literature and history, catalogued the Prince Lee collection, J.E.C. Munro, professor of law,catalogued the Muirhead law library, and the historian James Tait oversaw the Freeman library. This involvement of academics continued into the early 20th century.
Growing collections demanded new facilities and by the 1890s the Owens Library, based in the Main Building, was running out of space. A major benefaction, from Richard Copley Christie (1830-1901), a successful lawyer and former Owens academic, in 1894 made possible a new library. This opened, bearing his name, in 1898, on the south-eastern side of the Main Quadrangle. Christie followed this with a second act of remarkable generosity, when he bequeathed his library in 1901, unquestionably the most important collection acquired by the University Library before the merger with the John Rylands in 1972. Christie’s collection of Renaissance books was one of the greatest in private hands. Over forty years later, the Christie collection was complemented by the acquisition of the library of Walter Bullock (1890-1944), a former professor of Italian at the University, which provided impressive coverage of Cinquecento humanism.
The Library of the Medical School remained a separate entity; it was owned and administered by the Manchester Medical Society, which had offices at the University. The medical library had its own staff and was administered by the library committee of the Society, who were responsible for most of its acquisitions.
By the first decades of the twentieth century, the Library was enjoying a much higher profile within what was now the University of Manchester (created 1903). Important special collections continued to be acquired including the Arnold Library, purchased in 1922 from the National College of Teachers of the Deaf, and the Abraham Farrar collection, which was donated in 1932. These collections reflected the University’s reputation as a leading centre for the education of the deaf after the First World War. Staff numbers slowly grew and an increasing number of these staff had professional library or academic qualifications.
In 1936, the Arts Library was opened in Lime Grove. This impressive building, designed by the local Worthington partnership, reflected the growing status of the humanities within the University. The Christie Library was now used as a Science Library; the Medical Library remained essentially autonomous under the direction of the Faculty of Medicine. It too had accumulated impressive collections, including the library of the Manchester Medical Society, one of the finest medical collections outside of London, which was formally donated in 1930.
In the post-war period, with rising budgets and student numbers, the Library expanded rapidly under the direction of Moses Tyson (1897-1969), University librarian, 1935-1965, and Fred Ratcliffe (b.1928) , the incumbent from 1965 to 1979. Both believed in developing the Library’s special collections, and they acquired an impressive range of rare books and archives. These include the library of Manchester Museum, the book collection of the chemist James Riddick Partington (history of science), the Manchester Geographical Society’s map, book and archive collections, the Unitarian College collection and the archive of the Manchester Guardian.
The Arts Library had two extensions added in the 1950s and 1960s, and was originally expected to be full by the mid-1970s, but the rapid expansion of students and collections meant this date had to be brought forward by several years. In 1964, Council endorsed the creation of a central University Library, incorporating the arts, science and medical libraries. This objective was energetically pursued by Tyson’s successor, F.W Ratcliffe, appointed in 1965. Ratcliffe and the University authorities worked tirelessly with the University Grants Committee to gain financial backing for the project. At one stage, it appeared that the Library would bid for copyright library status to support its claim for this major new investment, but in the event this did not happen.
Before the new extension to the Library could be built, a major development for the Library’s special collections was achieved with the merger with John Rylands Library, in 1972, described by Ratcliffe as “the most important development in the history of both libraries” [annual report 1970-1971]. At this point the Library was formally renamed the John Rylands University Library of Manchester (JRULM).
In 1982, the extension to the Main Library was formally opened by the Queen. By this time the Library had vacated the Christie Library, and the Medical Library was fully incorporated into the Library administrative structure. The Library undertook innovative ventures such as automated book ordering and accessioning introduced in 1971 and later automated, and ultimately, on-line public catalogues, and was one of the forerunners in the higher education sector in providing electronic journals. In 2004, with the creation of The University of Manchester, the Library merged with the libraries of UMIST and the Manchester Business School; at this point it was renamed the John Rylands University Library. It was renamed the University of Manchester Library in the 2010s.
- George Mattinson, 1851-1853
- J Holme Nicholson, 1853-1871
- H C Oats, 1871
- J Taylor Kay, 1871-1894
- J H Clarke, 1895
- W E Rhodes, 1895-1903
- C W E Leigh, 1905-1936
- Moses Tyson, 1936-1965
- Frederick Ratcliffe, 1965-1980
- Michael Pegg, 1981-1990
- Christopher Hunt, 1991-2002
- William Simpson, 2002-2007
- Janet Wilkinson, 2008-2018
- Christopher Pressler, 2019-