We take our public libraries for granted. We know we can go down to the local branch and take out books at no charge, sit there and read the newspapers or just pass the time. They’ve been that way for more years than any of us have been alive and most believe they always will be (and remember to fight those government library cuts if you want them to stay open).
But it wasn’t always that way. Leeds Libraries only came into being in the later part of the 19th century, once literacy was more widespread. Before that, the only way to borrow a book was to be a member of The Leeds Library (the singular and the definite article are important distinctions).
Founded in 1768, it’s a proprietary subscription library – members pay an annual fee to be allowed to use the facilities. It started out on Kirkgate, close to Vicar Lane, above Ogle’s book shop and next to a pub, with 104 people each giving a guinea (£1 5p in new money) to become members and paying an annual fee of five shillings. Over the next few years it moved before eventually ending up in premises on the newly-constructed Commercial Street in 1807. The building, designed to order, cost £5,000 – quite a sum in those days – raised mostly by loans from members.
Most people in Leeds will have walked past the Leeds Library and maybe never even noticed it. There’s the name over the archway and a pair of unassuming doors, and that’s it. But go inside and it’s like passing beyond the wardrobe to Narnia. The main room, opened with the new library in 1807 and extended during the century with galleries and spiral staircases, is heaven to any book lover, walls lined with stacks – and big enough to host a quadrille in 1853.
But like any library, by the late 1870s the library was running out of room. Eventually they expanded into what had been the house behind, and the ‘New Room’ (which dates from 1881!) was added, effectively doubling the space, and galleries increasing the space almost 20 years later.
It’s still a subscription library, now the oldest surviving one in the country. There’s a sense of history simply in entering the place, and traces of history are everywhere. Six of the chairs purchased in 1807 for 50p each are still in use, although the original green paint is mostly gone.
While only members can borrow books, the library is available for research to accredited scholars (with permission, of course), and they also welcome visitors, as long as you have an appointment. There are also guided tours at different times, shown on their website.
Back when the library was first mooted, adverts for a meeting to discuss the idea in the Leeds Mercury and Intelligencer read that ‘a Library of this Nature will be an Honour to the Town, and a capital Advantage to the Inhabitants, especially in future Time.’ Little did those founds realise how prescient they were. The Leeds Library has now been part of the city for 295 years and continues to be an honour to the town.
Go and visit it. The Leeds Library is a part of your history, too. A good place to begin is with their website. If you care in the slightest for books you won’t regret a single moment.
Chris Nickson is the author of the Richard Nottingham crime novels, set in Leeds in the 1730s. He’s currently at work on a murder mystery set in Leeds in 1890 and featuring Inspector Tom Harper of Leeds Police.