Jonathan Schofield praises the St Peter’s Square icon but wonders at its omission

RECENTLY released figures show that the most visited tourist attraction in Greater Manchester is The Lowry arts centre with 846,097 visitors. This is followed by HOME arts centre with 837,621, The Museum of Science and Industry with 651,473, Manchester Art Gallery with 593,168 and The National Football Museum with 481,541.

All very good, especially since this is an increase of 10% year on year in overall visitor numbers across the region. The total visitor figure for Greater Manchester now stands at 1,319,000. Even better news is that almost the whole of that upsurge comes from proper tourist/holiday maker visits as opposed to say, business trips.

It is one of those few places in our city centre which feels like sanctuary.

But there is something odd about the figures as well. Something missing. Despite John Rylands Library being included in the top eleven of Manchester visitor attractions (with 242,892 guests) the most visited of all the Manchester region cultural tourist attractions is strangely absent.

This is Central Library in St Peter’s Square which now attracts a staggering 1.6m visits. Since reopening in 2014 the figures have been continually improving.

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This is understandable. Central Library is a square with a roof. There is no need to buy anything here, no need to worship any God, no need to do anything but escape into a calm, tranquil, magically-charged space that is one of those few places in our city centre which feels like sanctuary.

Catch it during exam times and the place is full to the gunnels. Central Library is particularly a place for young people to study, meet, flirt in a place of calmness. But it is not just that, it is a place where every age group mingles from the local study department and family history through to rare music scores section and the recondite literature areas.

When it reopened in 2014 Neil MacInnes, the head of the library services, said he wanted Central Library to be “Manchester’s front room”. It’s achieved that and then some.

“I’m overjoyed that we’re part of the cultural ecology of the city,” he said to me this week. “The use of the library reflects the make-up of the city, we have completely expanded the demographic since the reopening. The place retains the affection of the older visitors yet has opened its arms to a new audience. It is a modern space that also places host to events and exhibitions. What is really gratifying is the way the different audiences respect each other.”

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It is surprising therefore that Central Library isn’t included amongst the other visitor attractions. Apparently there are some arcane Visit Britain (the national tourist body) rules that prevent it from being included. These are being investigated because Central Library should be in the list. It’s a matter of prestige and simple fact that it should be included.

Central Library is pure tourism after all. It is a grand old building that is the focal point in St Peter’s Square with a distinctive shape that makes it a regional icon. It has showpiece spaces with the Wolfson Reading Room, the Shakespeare Hall, the Henry Watson Music Library, the formerly private suites on the second floor and the lovely ground floor housing the café and local studies area. The modern engineering required to insert into a circular building a new set of lifts and stairs is astounding.

The library still lies at the heart of what it means to be a civilised city...

Central Library ticks all the boxes and when comparing it with The Lowry, the Museum of Science and Industry and Manchester Art Gallery, it’s hard to understand the difference, unless books aren’t considered as important as the artefacts in the above establishments. And it must be remembered that most of the visitors to The Lowry are theatre-goers. Also how can John Rylands Library be included in the list if Central Library isn’t?

Central Library attracts 1.6m visitors. It is a huge success story in recent Manchester history in terms of the ‘build it and they will come’ method of thought. It’s a city icon. Birmingham Library shades Manchester’s Central Library with 1.8m visitors as the biggest visitor attraction outside London. Both prove that the most traditional of establishments, the library, still lies at the heart of what it means to be a civilised city, at the centre of the definition of ‘civic’. If you’ve not been recently then have another go.

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