The John Rylands Library is surely one of Manchester's most unsung treasures. People who know about it tend to fall into just two categories: students at The University of Manchester (I was taken there during my undergraduate course, and all I remember about the visit is that I fainted - physically dropped to the floor - when we were shown a fragment of the Bible. I'm pretty sure my tutors regarded me as an excellent example of piety and devotion for the rest of my time at university, rather than considering the rather prosaic truth that it was simply too hot in the display room), or people who have stumbled across its gothic splendour whilst wandering down Deansgate in search of Evuna or Dimitris.
Anyway, this general ignorance is a crying shame, and suggests an apathy that I myself am also guilty of, not having visited the library since it reopened in 2007 after a huge restoration project. I intend to rectify this over the summer by going along to the Elizabeth Gaskell exhibition, which runs from 15th July to 28th November to honour the bicentenary of the novelist's birth. If your knowledge of Gaskell is largely centred around busybodies in bonnets squabbling over fabric for dresses in a variety of whimsically scenic locations, then don't be put off: Gaskell was a marvellous writer, genuinely concerned with the plight of the poor in her hometown of Manchester, and not shy of depicting the hardships of their lives in her work. And there is always the exciting possibility that I will be able to purchase an Elizabeth Gaskell pencil or mug in the shop afterwards.
As well as the exhibition, the Gaskell celebrations include three public lectures between August and October. I will certainly be attending at least two of these: the second lecturer, Jenny Uglow, wrote the Gaskell biography that helped steer me safely through the Victorian Novelists module of my degree, so I feel I owe her something; the third lecturer, Alan Shelston, is the very man who delivered the aforementioned Victorian Novelists module, and as he was advanced in years even then I am most keen to see how he is faring.
Elizabeth Gaskell: A Connected Life, is at The John Rylands Library from 15 July to 28 November 2010 and is free (hurrah - leaves more cash for the shop). Full details at www.manchester.ac.uk/library.