Volunteers’ day out – Henry Watson Music Library

By Sarah Reynolds, volunteer

I went to visit the Henry Watson Music Library in The Central Library with Heather and the rest of the team from the R.N.C.M. who have been working on the project, ‘Making Music in Manchester During WW1’. When we had all arrived we met Ros, the librarian who is in charge of the Henry Watson Music library, who also has musical training and is a cellist. Ros says that having some musical experience was an advantage when undertaking the music library due to the associated terminology and jargon that comes with a specialist subject area. She does say that even without any prior musical knowledge it is easy to pick up the essentials quickly and easily.

Before the renovation of the Central Library there were two separate music collections which she had to put together and organise into one. Whilst finding the best system for cataloguing the extensive collection was problematic. Another problem was that the shelves for ordinary books are much narrower than that of most music as they tend to be quite wide, when placed on ordinary shelving they will not stay on and will simply fall off. Specialist shelves which are deeper and more suited to holding music had to be arranged, otherwise the library would be unworkable.


The music library itself has original wooden cladding and shelving from the 1920’s and is protected, so no changes can be made to it. This has proved challenging when arranging the layout and putting up the portrait of Henry Watson, a team from the National Portrait Gallery was brought in to hang the oil on canvas without putting in any holes or damaging the wood in any way. Safe to say it was quite a challenge but the team was eventually successful, the portrait now hangs proudly in-between two windows next to the information desk, where Henry Watson can keep an eye on all who use the area. Just as well, with three pianos, a drum kit and a regular Jam Session every Tuesday afternoon!

Henry Watson was the son of mill workers and showed immense talent early on. He even won sponsorship to develop his musical ability when he was playing the violin as a child, and was in high demand to play for the upper classes. During his adult life he was a bit of a collector maniac for music and musical instruments, at one point filling his house, the house next door and a storage unit with all things musical. He did give some away but the majority has eventually ended up into what is the Central Library today.

We were also privileged to meet Nic, the in – house conservationist for the library. He repairs everything from books and film negatives through to political posters. His work is varied and challenging and the skill of him and his team is not to be underestimated! Later in the reading room Ros showed us a small sample of some of the material that is contain within the collection, and told us about them in turn. Ros went through more of her job role in depth and explained the differences of preservation and conservation and how they differ.

The bowels of the central library are incredible, Ros showed us during our tour and explained that there are several specialist rooms for the various collections held by the library. Each room has state of the art technology, with temperature and humidity control and motion sensors. The motion sensors can be problematic sometimes, as when sorting the collection, (usually up a very large ladder with the books on the top shelves), if you don’t move often enough the lights will go off leaving you in complete darkness!


Ros showed us a small sample of the material held in the library. The material held in the library are varied and they have everything ranging from music, through to photographs, programmes, posters and newspaper clippings. I loved the posters and the stamps and stickers with Henry Watsons own handwriting on them. I loved the photo she showed us of some soldiers who were in a military hospital in Manchester, the variety of the instruments is very interesting and is also representative of what I have seen in the R.N.C.M.’s registers.

Ros is full of information on how they prioritise and collect material for the library and is full of stories about the music collection and Henry Watson himself. I loved meeting Ros and seeing the diversity of work held in the Central Library Archives, I especially loved getting a glimpse into the conservation work that goes on behind the scenes, and learning about the difference between conservation and preservation in terms of what the libraries and archives want and how this changes the priorities between the different institutions in England. I did not know a lot about the history of the Central Library, or the music library, despite living in Manchester my whole life. The social and cultural history of Manchester is not really a priority for most schools, whilst I had learned a little about Elisabeth Gaskell in school anything else I have wanted to know about I have learned outside the formal education system. Which is why I was very excited to meet Ros and to learn from her about the library and her experiences working with the collections, and hearing the life story of Henry Watson, who was a giant in the musical world during his lifetime and whose legacy lives on today.

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