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This article is taken from PN Review 247, Volume 45 Number 5, May - June 2019.

In Memory of Michael Powell
From Chetham’s Library
In Memory of Michael Powell (1955–2019): Manchester Man and Master of Books
Stella Halkyard
THE TWENTY-SECOND day of March 2019 was a sad day in Manchester and throughout the library world beyond. Four hundred people filed into the Cathedral to give thanks for the rich but too-short life of Michael Powell, Librarian of Chetham’s Library. The Cathedral seemed small and afterwards the great institution of Chetham's itself even smaller as we who had known him crammed together to share our memories of this great Manchester Man.

Like you, I know Michael through the sparkling essays he contributed to the inside back-cover of PN Review detailing the bibliogra­p­h­ical gems of Chetham's collections. But I’ve also been blessed to have Michael as a vital presence and inspiration across the arc of my life working in libraries. In fact, without him, and his example of what a rare books librarian was and could be, I might never have had the audacity to venture into the field.

We met in 1987 when he took me on at Chetham’s as part of a Manpower Services Commission Scheme, set up to alleviate soaring levels of unemployment. Part of a lively little family of lefty proto-librarians we amused him greatly as he initiated us in the arcana of the then international library standard AACR2 so we could bring Chetham’s catalogue into the twentieth century. Michael shared his polymathic knowledge of manuscripts, books and libraries with us without a trace of pedantry or impatience for our considerable ignorance. When a ‘proper’ job was advertised in Manchester Public Libraries (i.e. one that paid) he acted as my referee and prepped me for the interview. This service was repeated many times through the intervening years, most recently in 2017 when he assured me, ‘if they don’t appoint you I will torch the place’.

His generosity towards me continued throughout my working life. He had a great facility for friendship and was willing to be ‘roped in’ when support was needed. During the refurbishment of the John Rylands Library, for example, he came to the rescue by offering to host the annual poetry reading in the Baronial Hall at Chetham’s for the duration, thereby providing a more splendid setting than the Historic Reading Room of the Rylands! On another occasion the University was hosting Carlo Ginzburg, the great historian of witchcraft, and Michael agreed to meet him at very short notice. I can still see him in my mind’s eye showing, with mock gravity, the great and very serious Ginzburg, the burn mark on the table in Doctor Dee’s rooms where the magus himself was reputed to have conjured demons.

An inspiration to scholars, readers, and artists in equal measure, his was the first name that came to mind when a curator from the Whitworth asked me which Mancunian librarian would work well with the New Delhi­-based art group, Raq’s Media Collective, who were making work for their exhibition Twilight Language. Pictured here we see Michael showing Raqs the yard’s worth of books Karl Marx and Friedrick Engels consulted in the alcove of the Reading Room in Chetham’s Library in 1845 (see Michael Powell PN Review (43.1) Sep/Oct 2016 83). The work Raqs made is a video of four Manchester men (and women) including Michael. Dubbed the Master of Books, he is shown in situ in Chetham’s, tome in hand, art meeting life. For me Michael Powell hasn’t been a librarian to emulate or follow, he has been the librarian to emulate and follow and he will always be Manchester’s Master of Books.

Michael Powell with Raqs Media Collective at Chethams

IMAGE Michael Powell with Raqs Media Collective at Chetham's.
(© Mary Griffiths, 2017)

This article is taken from PN Review 247, Volume 45 Number 5, May - June 2019.

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