Bring back the book

A visit to a major library can be an eye-opening experience says Jacqueline Yallop

At street level the dark sandstone entrance to the John Rylands Library can go unnoticed. Sitting on Deansgate in central Manchester, it easily gets lost amid the traffic jams. But look up, and you will catch a glimpse of one of Europe's finest examples of modern Gothic architecture. Step inside and it really becomes spectacular - not only does it have a huge pillared entrance leading to a vaulted reading room with dazzling stained glass, it is home to one of the country's best collections of rare books and manuscripts.

This is not a local lending library. Books cannot be borrowed. But that doesn't mean the treasures of the Rylands are not available to the public. Anne Young, who organises school visits, always starts with the glories of the building. "The library was built in memory of the Manchester cotton merchant John Rylands who died in 1888. His wife Enriqueta wanted it to be a work of art. They used the best materials and state-of-the-art technology - this was the first building in Manchester to be lit by electric light."

Janice Young, who teaches at Torkington primary near Stockport, brings her Year 3 classes to the John Rylands regularly. The grandeur of the building always inspires them. "It hushes them instantly. And it's the basis for some excellent observational and art work using the patterns of the carved stone," she says.

But it's not only the building that schools come to see. The highlight of most visits is not the library but what it looks after - the books. "This is one of the most important collections in the world," says Anne Young. "We have a million items here - runic stones, medieval manuscripts, diaries and letters. Schools can see some very special things."

With so much to choose from, almost any curriculum area can be accommodated. Teachers can discuss their needs in advance and, in addition to the guided visits, the library sometimes offers workshops on bookmaking or calligraphy. There is also an exhibition programme. One of the most popular visits explores the history of writing and printing. "The children get excited handling papyrus and palm leaves," says Janice Young, "and seeing manuscripts from different cultures is really valuable."

Classes learn how manuscripts are made and how printing changed the world. The library has some of the earliest printed books and owns one of only 51 surviving copies of Johannes Gutenberg's 1455 Bible.

While books in the library cover everything from architecture to zoology, there is a strong literary heritage. The 20th-century literary archive, which includes manuscripts by curriculum favourites such as Elizabeth Jennings, is popular with GCSE and A-level students. "Students are inspired by seeing the actual pieces of paper, the crossings out, the editing," says Anne Young. "They see that poems don't just pop out of someone's head fully formed".

Most special library collections are owned by universities. The John Rylands is part of Manchester Univesity, which is unusually welcoming to schools - Oxford's Bodleian Library, for example, won't accommodate children younger than 14. The biggest collection is at The British Library which offers changing half-day workshops linked to the impressive exhibition programme and based around the curriculum. The John Ritblatt Gallery has a variety of treasures on permanent display from the Magna Carta to the manuscript of Handel's Messiah. It's worth making a visit just to see the magnificently illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels.

Small libraries can be as rewarding. Scotland's oldest lending library founded in 1680 at Innerpeffray in Perthshire will tailor-make visits and handling sessions for classes of any age and London's new Women's Library in Whitechapel has a programme of visits, exhibitions and events about women's history and culture.

When the John Rylands opened in 1900, public libraries were rare. The reaction of visitors 100 years later suggests that although they are more familiar now, only a few can create this kind of excitement. "There's a genuine sense of awe - for the building and the books," explains Janice Young.

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