Yesterday I spent a couple of hours in the wonderful Manchester Theatre Collection doing research for a project application to Heritage Lottery Fund Young Roots. The collection is looked after by the Arts Library in Manchester Central Library and documents Manchester’s theatres from the mid 18th century to the present day. It has been built up from the beginnings of the public library service in Manchester and continues to this day and includes a huge range of materials including play bills, photographs, progammes and memorabilia. What I find most amazing about the collection that it is property of the people of Manchester and, as such, can be accessed by any member of the public who goes into the Library and makes a request.
From my perspective I find all of this stuff fascinating and could easily spend many hours in the archive looking at stuff. What I find really interesting though, is the role of physical archives in an increasingly digital world. Of course digital archives can be a wonderfully accessible and easy way of large numbers of people accessing historical material but I can’t see how looking at a document online can ever compare to the thrill of actually looking at and handling the real thing. Incidentally, no part of the Manchester Theatre Collection is currently digitised so if you want to use any of it you will have to make a trip down to Central Library to see what is on offer. Of course, most of you probably know that the Library will be closing next year for at least three years for refurbishment which means that all of these resources will be packed away not to be seen until they return to a new and improved Central Library sometime after summer 2013. At the same time the Library Theatre Company, where I currently work will be moving out, probably never to return but moving to a spanking new theatre space instead. It seems funny to get sentimental about a impractical old building such as Central Library is but I for one am going to miss it dreadfully when it’s closed and will be very sad not to be working there anymore. So, enjoy it while you can and take the chance until it starts winding down at the end of this year to capitalise on the real treasures that this unique public space has to offer.