We visit … Harris Manchester College Library

Central panel of the stained glass window in the vestibule of Harris Manchester library

On a recent trip with other library staff, we had the opportunity  to visit Harris Manchester College, part the University of Oxford. We were able to look around not only the library, but also the Special Collections and archive.

The history of Harris Manchester College is very different to the history of Oxford Brookes. Harris Manchester was originally founded in Warrington as a college for Unitarian students. Many universities, including the University of Oxford, didn’t accept Nonconformists, so the college, along with other organisations like King’s College London, was created to allow people of differing backgrounds access to university education.The college changed location several times, including (unsurprisingly) to Manchester, before it eventually settled in Oxford in 1893, although it didn’t become part of the University of Oxford until 1996.

The college performed several interesting functions during the intervening years, including ordaining the first woman to ever qualify as a minister in England (Gertrude von Petzold) and playing a key role in the plans of the D-Day Landings.

Unlike Harris Manchester, Oxford Brookes University has been firmly rooted in Oxford since its foundation, although it has similarly gone through various metamorphoses, including several name and campus changes. Additionally, with our slightly later foundation date in 1865, we had no religious connotations to our name, remaining comparatively secular throughout our history.

It was interesting to see some of the other differences between the two. The physical buildings of the two libraries are very different, especially if we compare Harris Manchester with Headington Library, built in 2014  specifically to be a modern university library.

Headington Library can accommodate a large number of students at individual workstations, desks with plugs for laptops, and in group study rooms. In comparison, the original space in Harris Manchester library is largely taken up by the book collection with narrow passages running between the high shelves – although in recent years the college have built a very impressive mezzanine floor for additional student seating.

Whereas Oxford Brookes students will be used to having a single library membership that can be used across any of the university’s campuses, the students of Harris Manchester College may well have three different library memberships! The first will be with their college, the second with their departmental library, and the third with the Bodleian Library.

All this adds up to a very different atmosphere between the two libraries, even though they perform pretty much the same function for their students. At Headington Library the feeling is open, light, and airy – almost a warehouse of knowledge – whereas at Manchester Harris College Library the feel is somewhat more akin to a chapel of ancient secrets! And yet this is largely just aesthetic as you can probably find many of the same textbooks on the shelves of either library.

Statue of James Martineau in Harris Manchester library

However some of the challenges remain the same across both libraries: the call by students for additional work space; complaints about pungent tuna sandwiches (food and drink is allowed in Harris Manchester too); hogging of desks by students and heating issues.

Also very noticeable is how the history of Harris Manchester College is displayed in the physical environment of the college’s Library through oil paintings, busts, statues, and even stained glass windows that depict famous scholars and donors of years gone past! In comparison Headington Library wears the history of its university much more lightly with only a portrait of John Henry Brookes hanging outside the entrance to level two.

Due to the nature of its history, Harris Manchester College has a very different archive to Oxford Brookes too. The Harris Manchester archives contain large quantities of religious tracts, as well as material relating to the role of the college during World War 2. The archives additionally hold a large quantity of material relating to the college’s history, which is proudly displayed in busts, stained glass, and all manner of other objects.

Card catalogue in Harris Manchester archives

The archive at Oxford Brookes likewise contains material relating to the history and foundation of the university, but beyond that the nature of the collections are very different. At Oxford Brookes we collect along a number of other different themes (Food and Drink, Art and Architecture, Publishing and Literary Prizes, and Public and Allied Health) and the material we hold is generally more contemporary, with most of our collections dating from 1850 onward. That said, we do have some religious components to our collections, with the Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History situated at Harcourt Hill.

It was fascinating to visit the college and learn about its library and collections. The college’s archives have an understandably much narrower focus, whereas we’re fortunate enough to have very broad Special Collections at Oxford Brookes. The impressive history of the buildings and environments certainly lend the college a great deal of atmosphere!

We visited Harris Manchester as part of our annual Learn and Laugh week in May 2022. In the same week, we also had the opportunity to visit Oxfordshire County Library, which our colleague Geoff has also blogged about.

— Dan Croft (Scholarly Communications and Research Team Leader) and Elizabeth Stubbs (Library Assistant, Special Collections)

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