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Archives+ at Manchester’s Central Library

After a multi-million pound refit, Manchester’s Central Library opened earlier this year. Neil MacInnes, Strategic Lead – Libraries, Information and Archives, talks to Advisor about the project and explains how technology is improving accessibility and attracting new audiences.

Manchester’s newly refurbished Central Library reopened this year after a significant multi-million pound refurbishment by Manchester City Council to both conserve the architecture of the building and improve the library services in Manchester. It is now home to the brand new Archives+ initiative, a Heritage Lottery Funded project, which includes a new ground floor exhibition space, community exhibition space, film pods and reading room showcases. Archives+ is a state-of-the-art, digitally interactive archive of family records, historic registers, local history, the North West Film Archive, and specialist records from across the region. It brings together and integrates Manchester’s largest and most important archives under one roof.

The Vision

The vision for the project has accessibility and learning at its heart and has been designed in order to attract not only traditional library users, but new audiences including young people and black and ethnic minority communities. On entering the library’s ground floor, visitors are greeted with an open space where people can come and browse to see what’s on offer, with ‘tasters’ to encourage active engagement with the collections and resources at their fingertips. The focus is very much on the visual rather than text-based resources, catering to different learning styles. It’s a digital exemplar project that links to the wider networks of partner collections to bring everything together in one digital environment – very much providing the ‘wow factor’.

The Oculus

The project fully integrates with the working function of the Grade-1 listed library and is designed within the boundaries of the heritage architecture. The overall design works with and maximises these features; the centrepiece to the exhibition is the ‘Oculus’, through which you can look up and see the magnificent glass domed roof of the library above.

The Design

Mather & Co produced content, design and displays for an inclusive ground floor exhibition, where information is layered to allow visitors to explore and discover at their own pace. The project was designed ultimately to inspire people into taking the next step into researching their own history or a subject area that interests them at the library, and getting engaged with history and the collections.

Digital interactivity lends itself particularly well to the needs of the archive collections as many are two-dimensional and fragile so cannot be put on permanent display. This approach also allows visitors to explore what is potentially complex material in a digestible, visual form and puts accessibility and learning at the heart of the design. The information is also presented in ways that allow visitors with differing levels of knowledge and ability, and those whose first language is not English, to have an enjoyable and informative experience.

In the first of its kind in a library setting, the exhibition encourages interaction with the collections – especially with a younger, more digitally-aware generation – by throwing off the ‘stuffy image’ associated with archives and bringing them into the digital age.

Archives+ showing integrated cafe

The open plan surroundings and the new café also mean that visitors can delve into their own past, whilst having a coffee and relaxing. It combines the rich heritage of the Central Library with a modern approach; open spaces with areas for groups to informally socialise whilst viewing exhibition materials, watching film material in the video pods or relaxing with a coffee. Visitors see Archives+ and are inspired to take the next step into researching their own history or subject area that interests them.

Highlights

Archives+ highlights include a full-height ‘Virtual Stack’, which transforms visitors into archivists and allows them to explore the archive collections virtually, opening digital boxes to find out what documents lie within. Coffee tables provide interactive projections on the tops, where visitors can view film archives or photos from the collection.

In the centre, beneath the oculus, visitors can explore a 3D environment of the immediate local area around the library and explore key historic events that have taken place nearby, and which relate to collections held at the library. A ‘magic scrapbook’ animates as the pages are turned to reveal collections related to hobbies and leisure time in the area. A physical scale model of a tenement house typical of that you would have found in central Manchester in the late 19th century reveals what it was like to live in the city at that time through sounds, sights and smells. Visitors are even treated to a ghostly-guided tour of libraries in Manchester by the first library manager Edward Edwards, who gives his account of the changes to Manchester since the first UK public library opened in 1852.

Interactive tables

All of this interactivity is backed up by real archive objects, which are displayed in adjacent showcases. Previously, much of the library’s collections were in store and inaccessible to visitors; the creation of this exhibition has meant that many more items are now out on display and visible. Regular handling sessions can also take place in the space by staff.

Success

Central Library and Archives+ has been an overwhelming success since opening its doors earlier this year, attracting school groups, family and local historians, traditional library users as well as those visiting for the first time for a coffee or to take in the surroundings. Visitor numbers reached 5000 on the first day of opening and over 300,000 visitors in the first three months. Compared to 70% of the building being inaccessible before, now 70% is accessible and open to the public.

The offer is rich and varied for a number of different learning styles and dispels any myths about archives, making them interesting, accessible and, most importantly, fun.