Manchester Central Library and the Winsford Rock Salt Mines (with audio)

Manchester Central Library is undergoing a multi-million pound transformation and its rare and priceless books have been sent underground WORDS BY EMMA MAYOH PHOTOGRAPHY BY John Cocks

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When snow brought the country to a halt last winter it was salt from mines in Cheshire that helped keep the roads safe. And the Winsford Rock Salt Mine came to the rescue in a different way when multi-million pound plans to redevelop some of Manchester’s most beautiful buildings were announced.

Rather than emptying the mines, vast caverns were filled with a million books - if laid to end to end they would have reached almost all the way from their old home in Manchester’s Central Library to the entrance of the mine.

It took six months to move the books from the iconic, domed library for the restoration work to be carried out. The three-year revamp will also see improvements made to the Town Hall Extension and St Peter’s Square.

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Many more books are being kept in a warehouse in Manchester, others have gone to Chetham’s Library in the city centre and a small number to the Royal Northern College of Music. The remainder have also been transferred to City Library, a temporary facility in Elliot House, DeansgateBut rare, reference and special collection books as well as valuable archives have been buried 150 metres underground in Cheshire’s salt mines.

This includes a collection of the Central Library’s most precious treasures, some of which date back to the 15th century. Valuable manuscripts by Handel, a large newspaper archive and items from the library’s Henry Watson Music Collection will all be kept in the mines while the work is carried out.

Steve Willis, operations manager at Manchester Central Library, said: ‘The removal was a huge job. We started in February but the planning was done for months before that.

‘The rare and valuable books need to be properly looked after and it was a big time consuming job. All of the books needed our full attention but it was particularly important that these were stored properly.’

The consistent 14 degree temperature and humidity levels in the mines - which are the size of 700 football pitches - provide the perfect environment for the treasured books and documents.

Every box is given a barcode reference and recorded by staff at Deepstore Records Management, the company based in the salt mine. Archives and documents, which will still be needed throughout the three years, can be accessed through a tracking system and library archivists will be able to visit the mines on a weekly basis to collect anything they need.

The Bodleian Library and the National Archives also keep some of their collections in the mines, meaning they are already home to treasured paintings, archives from the police service, universities and financial institutions.

Steve said: ‘We’re in very good company and the salt mines are the ideal place to store such important, special and rare collections.

‘Not only is it a constant and stable environment but the security is very good as there are very few people who have access to them. Storing them above ground may have been more risky.’

The library was built in 1934 and architects are currently working on the plans for the vital restoration and renovation work, which will be carried out in the listed buildings, alongside work to update the facilities.

The Library Theatre, which was based inside the vast building, will move to new premises, expected to be the Theatre Royal. Other organisations, including the Greater Manchester Country Records Office and the North West Film Archive, currently located at Manchester Metropolitan University, will be based at the library when it re-opens in 2013.

While the work is being carried out staff will either be based at the temporary library or they will work on the mammoth task of cataloguing the million strong collection.

Steve said: ‘There are still a lot of the books that aren’t catalogued on the computer so we will have staff working hard to get this done before the three years is complete. This is one of the finest libraries in the country and when it re-opens it will offer a world class facility. We have achieved a lot already. There is still a lot of work to be done but it will be worth it.’