A unique research collection documenting 200 years of British labour history was awarded Pounds 198,900 this week by the National Heritage Lottery Fund. The Working Class Movement Library in Salford will use the grant as partial funding for a three-year project to computerise the library's catalogue and put it on the Internet.
The WCML holds more than 30,000 books, periodicals and pamphlets, including major collections on Tom Paine, the 20th-century left and Irish history, and a trade union archive which incorporates records dating from the 1740s.
The library also contains some 2,000 items of commemorative pottery, pictures, banners and badges. Widely used as a research base by academics and postgraduates throughout the north and north west, it attracts visiting academics from Japan, China, the United States and elsewhere in Europe.
John Saville, leading labour historian and editor of the Dictionary of Labour Biography, considers the collection to be a valuable resource: "The library has a very unusual, in some ways unique collection, going back to the radicals of the 1790s," he says. "Along with the other libraries and the National Museum of Labour History, where the Labour Party and Communist Party archives are deposited, it makes Manchester the most important single source for labour movement history in the country."
The WCML owes its distinctive character to its own unusual history. It was begun modestly 40 years ago by Edmund and Ruth Frow, both lifelong socialists and trade union activists. By 1987 their collection, now numbering some 10,000 books, 15,000 pamphlets, and assorted memorabilia, was attracting a constant stream of researchers. Before it finally burst out of their semi-detached house, Salford City Council offered the collection, along with its founders, a more spacious home. Now maintained by the council, and owned by a charitable trust, it is augmented by donations from individuals and political organisations.
Mr Frow, a former AEU district secretary who is 90 in June, can still locate most items in the library from memory, but is delighted with the award: "This project will enhance the prestige of the library, locally and nationally," he says. "We want the material to be used," agreed Ruth, 73, a former deputy headteacher. "That's why we collected it."