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Library of the Month: The Leeds Library

Posted By Administration, 29 August 2019

Library of the Month: The Leeds Library


Leeds is the home of the Yorkshire Country Cricket Club and Tetley Breweries. It is also the home of the Leeds Library, which Geoffrey Forster has kindly agreed to tell us about.


The Leeds Library: 18th-century library provision for the 21st century

The Leeds Library was founded in 1768. It was a subscription library owned by its members and created by them to provide a general collection to a general readership. Each new member contributed a guinea for a transferable ‘ticket’ or a ‘share’ and also paid an annual subscription – this was five shillings at the library’s opening. The library was not the first of what came to be known as proprietary libraries – the first is usually thought to be that in Kelso of 1750. It was itself based upon the one in Liverpool of 1758. It is however the oldest surviving though its nature fundamentally changed in 2008 when it became an educational charity. Most of the other similar libraries still in existence are also charities including Devon & Exeter Institution (1813), Plymouth Proprietary Library (1810), Tavistock Subscription Library (1799), Morrab Library, Penzance (1818), Bromley House Library, Nottingham (1816), Linen Hall Library, Belfast (1788) and The Portico Library, Manchester (1806). All these libraries including Leeds are members of the Association of Independent Libraries.

The revolutionary nature of these libraries and the times in which they were founded can easily be forgotten. The only other institutional libraries in 1768 in Leeds belonged to the grammar school and the Quaker meeting. Neither provided travel literature, novels, political pamphlets, scientific treatises or modern histories. Queues formed for the new books and the difficulties when certain people always seemed to get new books first, others kept them too long or there were just too many members led to a breakaway library in Leeds in 1793. Outside observers could see these libraries as dangerous suggesting, as Thomas Dunham Whitaker did in Leeds, that they led to well-read rather than educated readers and could be politically or theologically dangerous if the wrong people took control. He was here thinking of the Leeds Library’s most famous founder, Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), whose partisan actions at the Birmingham Library founded in 1779 were said by a local commentator to have helped to cause the Priestley Riots of 1791.

These libraries were revolutionary in other ways. Their books were on open access where subscribers could help themselves, they provided their members with frequently updated printed catalogues, they did not discriminate by religion or politics and the Leeds Library admitted women. Also, they were run democratically by their members and, crucially, they not only wanted to acquire current literature but also to collect that material to create collections of increasing value in the future. The Leeds Library has continued that tradition down to the present day when most other examples of the proprietary library have long-since disappeared due to the competition of philosophical societies, mechanics’ institutes and public libraries. It survives in large part because it built a building with shops underneath at the heart of what was to become the shopping district of Leeds city centre. This property ownership unfortunately also led to a restriction on the number of shares which was limited to just 500 until charitable status in 2008 (though with the addition of some subscribing members from 1990 onwards).

Charitable status has confirmed the importance of the book collection and of the building purpose-built in 1807-1808 with a Victorian extension in 1880-1881. The library is still a subscription library that possesses about 140,000 printed items in its Commercial Street premises and at recently acquired outstores. Its major strength is in the humanities – particularly historical travel literature – with surprising gems including collections of Reformation and English Civil War pamphlets. This collection has always been made available to external researchers but the library’s role as an educational charity has given fresh impetus to raising the library’s profile, to creating online cataloguing data, to broadening the demographic of subscribers and visitors, to preserving our collection and to increasing physical and intellectual access to that collection.

The library is a traditional institution with an interesting historic home housing largely printed material. It is our aim to use this collection to inspire readers young and old, to remind them of the pleasures of print and of the individuality of historical books and to provide a research collection for researchers whether amateur or professional. Collaborations with other libraries, historical societies, schools, colleges and universities will help to cement the library’s position as a valuable resource for the people of Leeds and beyond. By means of our online catalogue, website, collecting blog, twitter and facebook pages, the library’s holdings, history and activity will be communicated in a way in which Joseph Priestley would have been a little envious but of which he would most certainly have approved.

Geoffrey Forster

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