Michael Powell obituary

Other lives: Librarian who transformed Chetham’s Library in Manchester into an internationally recognised institution

My friend and colleague Michael Powell, who has died aged 63 from cancer, was librarian of Chetham’s Library in Manchester for 35 years.

It was through Michael’s vision, intellectual brilliance and quiet charisma that Chetham’s Library was transformed from a little-known curiosity to an internationally respected academic library and one of Manchester’s top visitor destinations. It was a privilege to work alongside him and become his friend. He was kind, warm, clever and hilarious, and I would frequently leave work at the end of the day aching with laughter.

Michael was born in Farnworth, Bolton, to Bessie (nee Bridge), a mill worker, and Roland Powell, a labourer from Wales. He was educated at Farnworth grammar school and at his local branch library, where he established his deep love of reading. His father died when he was a child, and he was raised by his mother with the help of his older sister, Barbara. When his mother died in Michael’s teens, Barbara continued to be a loving support to him.

Michael Powell had vision, intellectual brilliance and quiet charisma
Michael Powell had vision, intellectual brilliance and quiet charisma Photograph:

He studied divinity at New College, Edinburgh, where he excelled, obtaining a first-class honours degree and doctorate, and followed this with a course in librarianship at Strathclyde University. It was in Edinburgh that Michael met his soulmate, Agneta Koenraads, whom he married in 1987.

When he became Chetham’s librarian in 1984 it was Michael’s first job and he considered himself fortunate to have been offered the position. In fact, Chetham’s was lucky to acquire Michael. Under his care, the collection was catalogued, the building was repaired and the library became a hub of cultural activity, a place alive with ideas and creativity.

Michael’s easy-going nature and anarchic sense of humour were infectious, and he wore his considerable knowledge lightly. His ability to inspire others was legendary, though he was as happy listening as he was sharing his own ideas and beliefs. He developed an expertise in the radical history of the Manchester region, and loved to show visitors to the desk in the library where Marx and Engels had worked. A favourite recent acquisition was a framed copy of Jeremy Deller’s “Strong and stable my arse” poster; propped in Michael’s office as a useful means of determining visitors’ politics, it was typical of his mischievous and maverick approach.

Michael is survived by Agneta, their children, Kate and Henry, and Barbara.

Sue McLoughlin

The GuardianTramp

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