As your walking through Commercial Street in Leeds’ busy city centre, you’d be forgiven for missing Leeds Library. With Starbucks at one end and Lush at the other this street has a lot of bright storefronts to grab a busy shopper’s attention, but it’s the archway in the middle that offers the most to anyone who chooses to take a closer look.
In 2016 I did just that, having just finished my final exams at the University of Leeds I was ticking things of my university bucket list. The library were offering behind the scenes tours , so I booked myself onto one and went to explore this hidden gem.
Readers, what I found on this tour was library heaven.
It is a beautiful library that would make any bibliophile’s heart sing, and is the oldest surviving subscription library in the country opening in 1768. As you walk in you can feel the history of the place. Unlike a public library, subscription libraries could only be accessed if you were a paying subscriber or had invested in shares. Members were responsible for running the library and funding it’s ever-growing collection of books. Although these type of libraries sound elitist there were no public libraries in the 18th century, so these member run libraries filled a gap that allowed many people to access an amazing literary resource. Although admittedly only if they had available funds!
In its 252 year history Leeds Library has created an impressive collection, and it is particularly strong on in the following areas: “travel, topography, biography, history and literature“. The library member’s interests affected what books were bought, so the library’s collection shows us how tastes changed over the libraries many years. With topics like natural history and theology going out of fashion as the years went by.
The library’s archival records are currently being digitised and made available on their website, and rather excitingly this includes a list of the first members of the library from the 1768 minute book! The most well-known member was Joseph Priestly (1733-1804) who was a local theologian and chemist known for the discovery of oxygen and other gases. You can see his signature on the list of members here. He was elected secretary of the committee who were to manage the library, and they opened the library on Tuesday 1st November 1768.
Yet the introduction of public libraries in Britain, through the 1850 Public Libraries Act, had a huge impact on subscription libraries and their future. The act was produced as “liberal-driven political and social reform initiative“, to assist with the education of the masses in the growing urban areas. It was a slow burn though and “by 1867, only 27 authorities in Britain had adopted library legislation“. Yet as time went on public libraries grew, and in Leeds we have the wonderful Leeds Central Library in the city centre by the Town Hall. The 20th century became a difficult time for Leeds Library financially, and they had to sell some of their books to keep afloat. In the last few decades the popularity of these subscription libraries has gone back on the rise, and when you visit Leeds Library you can see why. Not only does it have amazing collections, but the building itself is seeped in the city’s history. It’s not just the appeal of books, but the library setting itself that attracts visitors.
Public and subscription libraries can happily coincide in the same place, as they have the same goal: to get people reading! If you ever visit Leeds (or are a local!) Leeds Library is well worth a visit either by going on one of their tours, getting a membership or visiting during the hours when they’re open to the general public. They’re closed at the moment due to the UK lockdown, but I can’t wait to visit again once life gets back to normal.
Have you visited before? What do you think of Leeds Library? As always I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
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Historic England ‘The English Public Library 1850-1939’ https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/iha-english-public-library-1850-1939/heag135-the-english-public-library-1850-1939-iha/
BBC News: The Fall and Rise of Subscription Libraries: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-nottinghamshire-35831853
UK Independent Libraries: https://botw.org.uk/Reference/Libraries/Independent_Libraries/
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