Volunteering at the Portico – Part 1

Last week (mid-October 2021) I started a volunteers programme at the Portico Library. The Portico is one of Manchester’s longest-running institutions whose historic collection spans over 450 years. It was founded in 1806 by 400 subscribers including authors, future prime-ministers, scientists and educators. As stated on the website:

Built with wealth derived from the Industrial Revolution, British empire-building, and colonial expansion, the Library amassed a collection that reflects the innovations, but also the exclusions and inequities of its time.

The Portico Library, 2021

In 2017 the Portico became a registered charity; they now work with diverse communities to explore and confront Manchester’s complex history through events, exhibitions and learning programmes. The cover image for this blog posts shows the current exhibition which is titled ‘Refloresta!’ by Maria Nepomuceno. They also host the prestigious Portico Prize for Northern writers. The library is free to enter and researchers can also apply for free access to the collections. Membership guarantees access to the reading room (pictured below) and a number of other benefits all of which are listed on the website.

I hope to explore the collection gradually over the coming months and to learn more about its themes, variety and quirks. I have been encouraged to begin researching it online using the search catalogue which is also free to access. On the website there is also included a section on Reading Lists, compiled by members, researchers and former Librarians on topics such as: Elizabeth Gaskell, Evolution, Fine Arts, Jewish Literature & Culture, Military & Naval History and 19th Century Women Travellers. I did a quick search of ‘Portico Library’ in Google Scholar and have discovered a small number of readings, including ‘We sit and read and dream our time away’: Elizabeth Gaskell and the Portico Library by Shirley Foster, published in the Gaskell Society Journal in 2000 (vol 14). Foster discusses how the Portico was an important source of reading matter for professional middle class people for whom buying books was still a considerable financial commitment. Until the early twentieth-century, women could not be members, and therefore Elizabeth Gaskell could not borrow books in her own right, William had to do so for her. William Gaskell was chairman of the library from 1849-1884.

Elizabeth Gaskell, Source: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-unjustly-overlooked-victorian-novelist-elizabeth-gaskell

There is also a short article titled ‘De Quincey and the Portico Library’ by Grevel Lindop (1994). Lindop explains that Thomas De Quincey’s connection to the Portico is of particular interest as he mentions the library in his autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), in a passage which Lindop states is ‘the best-known literary reference to the library’. The reference to the library occurs in a footnote to ‘Introduction to the pains of opium’ which foregrounds an account of the bizarre nightmares De Quincey suffered as a result of his addiction. De Quincey wrote the following:

A handsome news-room, of which I was very politely made free in passing through Manchester by several gentlemen of that place, is called, I think, The Porch: whence I, who am a stranger in Manchester, inferred that the subscribers meant to profess themselves followers of Zeno. But I have been since assured this is a mistake.

Grevel Lindop, 1994

Excitingly, the Portico will be holding an event Thomas De Quincey’s Manchester: 200 Years of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater on Thursday 28th October where author Ed Glinert will chart De Quincey’s Manchester and this hallucinatory masterpiece. I am fortunate to be volunteering during this event.

After being inducted by Apapat Jai-in Glynn, the Portico’s fantastic Exhibitions and Events Production Assistant, I have begun volunteering. I hope to use this opportunity not only to support a small charitable organisation and their incredible work, but also to gain more practical experience in collections care, research and the installation and de-installation of exhibitions. I will be taking part in book conservation sessions every Wednesday with Jim Duff, former book binder and collection care manager for the University of Manchester (John Rylands Library, Main Library and more). Through this blog I will document learning and hope it will be useful for other volunteers or early-career professionals.

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