‘A library with an institute and an institute in a library’. Building a collaborative community of information and scholarship – John Rylands Research Institute and Library, University of Manchester

The John Rylands Library is part of The University of Manchester Library which was established in 1824. The John Rylands Library itself will celebrate its 150th Anniversary in 2024. The John Rylands Research Institute was set up in 2013 to support funded research on the collections. In March 2021 they became a single entity, The John Rylands Research Institute and Library,  in order to allow closer collaboration between Library staff and academic researchers.  Its purpose is to use the richness of Manchester’s unique collections to promote multidisciplinary research within its own faculties and schools, although staff regularly partner with others across the world. Activity at The John Rylands Research Institute and Library “is meant to be a catalyst for the research in the University of Manchester”.

The John Rylands Library is part of the third largest research library system in the United Kingdom. The University of Manchester Library contains around 10 million items and has 114 special collections staff. Merging the Institute and Library brings together a wide range of staff including: researchers, librarians, curators, archivists, conservators, software developers and imaging specialists.

The John Rylands Library realises funding for its collections and research through internal initiatives and by a coordinated programme of funding from external bodies and individuals including foundations and philanthropic donors as well as maximising Library endowment programmes. However, internal investment and support is also important.

Researchers and the Rylands imaging team

Researchers and the Rylands imaging team

A clear purpose

The John Rylands Research Institute and Library is focused on a clear and well-defined purpose and scope. The new entity will:

 …signal a much closer relationship between the research side of what we do and the Library to the point where we really want it to be indistinguishable. [Senior member of library staff]

Within this purpose Library staff and academic staff work in partnership in order to shape future operational and strategic priorities.

The intention is to open up the collections making them accessible to researchers across all three faculties: Biology, Medicine and Health; Humanities; and Science and Engineering.  For example, the archived teaching materials in the Manchester Medical Collection of a Manchester surgeon-midwife are being studied for a project that examines midwifery practice in the early 19th century and the way that medical textbooks shaped attitudes towards pregnancy and childbirth, [1] whilst historians are using modern scientific methods to examine early modern recipe books. [2]

Midwifery flap book, G. Spratt, Obstetric Tables, 1835

Midwifery flap book, G. Spratt, Obstetric Tables, 1835

A fully integrated structure

The John Rylands Research Institute and Library has a fully integrated structure operating under the shared leadership of Professor Hannah Barker (Director of The John Rylands Research Institute) and Professor Christopher Pressler (John Rylands University Librarian and Director of The University of Manchester Library).  The University Librarian’s professorial chair demonstrates the academic status and standing in which Library staff are held.

The structure has become further integrated with one of the objectives being to “have a stronger convergence” and to make “…librarians, archivists and curators more research active, and also to inculcate curatorial practices amongst the researchers”. [Senior member of library staff]

In addition to shared directorship, The John Rylands Research Institute and Library also has an International Advisory Board, Steering Committee and a Management Group. These are ‘aligned internally’ with the Library Executive Team; Humanities Faculty Leadership Team; and University of Manchester Research Institutes Board which represents all 23 research institutes in all disciplines across the institution.

Letter from the Mary Hamilton papers

Letter from the Mary Hamilton papers

Facilitating interdisciplinary research and breaking new ground

The Library works to develop its collections through joint research projects to support new fields of scholarship, and to document contemporary societies and cultures. Collaboration between academics and Library staff facilitates new approaches in digital humanities and curation, as well as scientific techniques in the study and conservation of heritage materials.

An example of how this collaboration has worked practically within an AHRC-funded multidisciplinary project is Unlocking the Mary Hamilton Papers, which is gathering the personal papers of a leading Georgian writer and socialite, the bulk of which are archived at The John Rylands Library, and examining them to further understand English society, letter writing, language and social networks at the time. The Institute Director and project lead explains the crucial role of the Library staff in planning the project.

The Library is:

…not just producing the material, but helping us to identify and locate it, to digitise and to catalogue it so that we can create an online edition which we wouldn’t be able to do without Library staff.’  In addition, they ‘were active partners in planning the way that research was re-organised in the pandemic, which I know is not usual but it is crucial for the project’s success.

An outcome of the project will be an open access online edition of the complete papers of Mary Hamilton.

A truly collaborative partnership

Nurturing relationships and developing people is a success factor.

The collections are important, but the people are just as important, building a community of expertise and a community of scholarship in the way that Manchester has managed to do over the last few years. [John Rylands University Librarian]

The structure of the Institute and Library allows focus on relationship building between staff and ensures that sustainable partnerships and a culture of experts working closely together are built for the long term. This practice of defining research partnerships between Library and academic staff could be applied at different levels at other institutions.  

Lessons Learned

  • A well designed and integrated structure with a clear purpose and shared goals are important factors for creating successful research collaborations between Library and academic staff
  • Close collaboration can be stimulated by gathering relevant expertise into one research and Library institution
  • This can lead to innovative research which unlocks archival information and creates accessible knowledge
  • The John Rylands Research Institute and Library is a model that can be transferred on any scale

Further Information