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Chetham Library: Oldest Free Public Library In English-Speaking World

Chetham’s Library in Manchester stands as a testament to centuries of history, housing a remarkable collection of over 100,000 volumes of printed books and over 1,000 manuscripts. Established in 1653 by Humphrey Chetham, the library is the oldest surviving public library in Britain and holds national and international significance.

The library’s origins date back to Humphrey Chetham’s will, which also established a school for poor boys and provided for the placement of chained libraries in local churches. The impressive sandstone building that houses Chetham’s dates back to 1421, making it one of the most complete medieval complexes in the northwest of England.

In the Middle Ages, books were considered valuable commodities, leading to the widespread practice of chaining books to shelves as a security measure. The chaining system allowed books to be read at the desk but prevented them from being removed from the bookcase, thus deterring theft.

Chetham’s Library offers tours that delve into its rich history and architectural marvels. Led by expert staff and volunteers, these tours provide insights into the library’s fascinating past, including stories about its renowned visitors and unique features such as medieval cat flaps and devil’s hoof prints.

Visitors to Chetham’s Library are captivated by its atmospheric ambiance, with dark oak paneling and the scent of old books adding to the experience. The library is open to readers free of charge from Monday to Friday, providing an opportunity to explore its treasures at leisure.

Recent visitors have praised the guided tours, highlighting the knowledgeable guides and the opportunity to learn about the library’s history and architecture. Highlights of the tour include the table where the Communist Manifesto was researched, as well as the sight of chained and locked-up books—a sight rarely seen in modern times.

Chetham’s Library invites visitors to immerse themselves in its rich heritage and explore its remarkable collection, offering a unique glimpse into the past.

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