life at the library: tales of work experience at manchester central library

Inspired by our second-year Literature at Work module, Charlotte Stevenson undertook a work placement at Manchester Central Library. In this exclusive post, Charlotte shares tips, tales, trials and tribulations from her time in the library.

By Charlotte Stevenson

When I found out that there was a second-year module available next semester called Literature at Work which offered students the opportunity to go out into the real world and encounter literary based work in person, I jumped at the chance. In fact, I was so over eager I think I might have been amongst the first to sign up! The field of literature, incorporating all things from books to lyrics, is one with so many different elements that I at first didn’t know where to start when coming up with where to apply for my 70 hours of placement. So, I began with a list and started condensing it to end up with my top 5 locations.

I was fortunate enough to receive an email confirming that I had been successful in securing a two-week work experience placement for my first choice, Manchester Central library, upon arrival back from my semester in the Netherlands. This was made doubly exciting by the fact that I was going to be based primarily in the Henry Watson music library; located on the second floor of the building, it is a one of a kind space where musicians can practice on shared instruments and borrow any number of scores, rare and popular alike, for free. Needless to say, the prospect of being able to learn more about the behind-the-scenes work in this place where I have spent so much time left me eager to begin my new adventure!

My first day was quite nerve-wracking but, whilst it did end up being quite an overwhelming few hours due to the amount of information there was to remember, it proved to be the beginning of something extremely special for me. Touring the building in the morning left my head reeling at the number of hidden corridors I had no idea about! It felt like being in an Enid Blyton novel to discover that a panel was a door and that the ending of a floor wasn’t actually the ending of a floor. Whilst I think it would take quite a while to memorise all of those pathways to charter them more successfully without Google Maps, I did prove myself quite proud in finding the regular way around things within my first week. It’s funny how a place you always presumed you knew well can be completely turned upside down into something brand new, just like that.

Manchester’s Stunning architecture is infamous for fusing the new with the old + a T-Rex, made from the local 3D printer! – Image copyright C. Stevenson 2017

The thing about working in Manchester is that, for a little while at least, you get to be at the heart of a cultural melting pot. With everything being so close together, lunch breaks have meant becoming acquainted with more Lowry through my own sketching at Manchester Art Gallery and miniature zoological projects over at the beautiful Manchester museum (their blue whale skeleton has been there since my grand-dad’s grand-dad was a little boy). Every morning, walking across St. Peter’s Square after getting my bus, I marvel at the number of people heading in all different directions to begin their day; there is something quite incredible about encountering so many people at once. If you’re trying to imagine it, just think about how many bow-ties, shoelaces or pairs of glasses that must entail – far too many for me to think up a hypothetical statistic right now!

Amongst the regular tasks I’ve been working on every day, there have been some moments which were particularly useful in helping me achieve my initial objectives for my library work experience. For instance, shadowing central desks on each floor allowed me to interact with different environments and people. At first this was quite outside of my comfort zone, but nearing the end of my time here I find myself answering questions readily left and right; from book recommendations to advice on joining the library. Whether it’s observing a ‘Rhyme Time’ session led by librarians for parents teaching their children to read or dealing with reservations, there is always something new to be getting on with. Getting outside of my comfort zone like this has been the best way to start putting into action what I was being taught. It’s left me with a profound respect for libraries.

The view from the business library when shadowing the main desk on my first day.

One of the main reasons I wanted to work in a library is because, as I said earlier, I spend so much time in them. As a writer, as a student, and in general, libraries have always been my mother-ship. I can remember quite vividly my first library books and the patchwork chairs where I would curl up to get through the first few chapters before heading back home after school. For us regular Matilda’s, libraries are so incredibly important; in an age where they are increasingly overlooked for apps, it is more important than ever that young people such as myself are engaging with these environments first hand.

When you step inside the library, it is like stepping inside another world. A world in which animals can talk, Mars is just a page away and time travel is always possible. The latter of those is even more visible than you might think if you head down to the recovery section of the library. I did some shadow work here for an afternoon and was amazed by the sheer number and variety of texts preserved there. There were playbills from every Manchester theatre to ever exist as well as Elizabeth Gaskell’s original, annotated letters and manuscripts. I even got to hold a second Shakespeare folio! Those stacks are something of the past, piled high with the musty books literature students can only dream of. It’s possibly the place I will miss most now that my placement is coming to an end.


Some of my favourite pieces from the new interactive art exhibition marking the anniversary of the end of World War I. You can read more here:

In summary, during my time at Manchester Central Library, I have learnt just how varied, complex and important this space is. If you’re considering applying for work experience in your local library, I can highly recommend it. And if you’re looking for something new to read or simply want to pop along to an event to learn something new, see what’s going on or find something that sounds interesting; I can highly recommend the current exhibition in Manchester and the range of digital skills workshops available in libraries across the country.