Manchester’s inaugural Festival of Libraries, which took place virtually and in-person across the city-region last week, was a sprawling patchwork of events representing what libraries can be.
From virtual artist residencies and talks by famous writers to interactive activities for children and tours of Manchester venues, the five days of the Festival proved to be a glorious celebration of libraries and all they provide us.
A central theme flowing through the events was curiosity: Not just about what libraries are, but what they provide and what they mean to us.
For celebrated children’s author Michael Rosen – who starred at the Festival – libraries are essential given how they provide us with two of the most powerful tools of life: Reading and writing.
“That is how we learn, how we grow, by sharing stories”, he said, talking with Rochdale Library services on the opening evening of the Festival.
“We make comparisons between the stories we’re reading and the story of me.”
Rosen spoke as part of an ‘Inspired by Libraries’ series, where notable figures in the creative world were paired with a Greater Manchester library service.
Radzi Chinyanganya, a children’s television presenter and debut author, also talked to a group of children in person at Altrincham Library, where he explained how libraries helped him with his GCSES, and enabled him to learn about Karate.
For children, libraries are such a magical place, and the lectures really emphasised just how formative they can be. I saw this in action when I went along to Central Library’s ‘Sunday Funday’. Greeted by characters from Alice in Wonderland, it was wonderful to see young faces light up as they recognised the Mad Hatter and Captain Hook.
Children were able to take part in an interactive story with children’s author Kristina Stephenson, playing with puppets and learning about the fantastical world of Stephenson’s best-selling series. Upstairs was the chance to create a pop-up inspired by books and libraries.
Whilst the sessions themselves were creative and enjoyable, it was the ability for children to be creative and imaginative that brought an excitable fizz to the air.
Another strand of the Festival was a series of artist residencies, where local musicians, poets, and creatives worked together with youth groups in a series of workshops facilitated by libraries across Greater Manchester.
James Holt, a singer-songwriter from Bolton, worked with ‘Us Girls’, a youth group in Stockport, on a song and music video based around what libraries meant to them. He told me how, when he brought his ukulele along in the last session, one of the girls learned some chords and was thrilled by having been able to learn something new.
He says it’s those “little moments” that might encourage people to check out the library, come to a group, or maybe pursue music as a result of the Festival.
One noticeable element to the festival was its broad range of artistic mediums and formats. Hawk Dance Theatre, a Manchester-based contemporary dance company, performed ‘Getting From A to B’ in several of Greater Manchester libraries during the week.
Choreographed within libraries themselves, it proved to be an adventure around the library, examining the choices and decisions we face in our lives.
Stephen Holland, UK comics laureate, spoke to a live audience at Altrincham Library about the power of visual storytelling and Guy Garvey, lead singer of the band Elbow, talked about his love of libraries with Chetham’s Library.
As a UNESCO City of Literature, Manchester has partnered with artists in other cities of literature across the world. Kate Feld talked to Alicia Sometime, writing from Melbourne, Australia, and Anna Polanyi, in Iowa City, via Instagram Live about their projects and experiences of working with Manchester’s libraries from half-way across the world.
“Librarians are the glue that holds the world together,” Alicia said.
The whole Festival was put together at lightning speed, and the quality and quantity of events demonstrated the passion that each of the libraries hold for celebrating themselves and each other.
Martin Roberts, Libraries Liaison Manager for Stockport Council, told me that library staff are effective at pivoting to new events and activities as required, managing the jump between digital and in-person events with ease.
He hopes the Festival will particularly inspire young people, such as ‘Us Girls’ who worked with James Holt.
“A large part of my view about libraries is also that we want to make sure we bring cultural opportunities for young people who otherwise might not experience them,” said Martin.
“Not only do I believe that this free resource is a space that people should use, it’s this space where they won’t be challenged when they come in, they won’t be expected to buy anything, but it’s a space where people can gain knowledge and gain independence.
“I think they’re all opportunities for people in society, especially those starting out.”
Photos: Anna Willis, Festival of Libraries