Oliver Cross: Wander around the central library in Leeds and learn

There's a lot more to see if you join an official tour of the building.

There's a lot more to see if you join an official tour of the building.

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ON SUNDAY, I took a guided tour of the central library in Leeds, which is a glorious building lucky to have survived a long history of municipal vandalism and neglect.

When the building opened in 1886 it was much more than a library. In partnership with the Town Hall over the road, it was a sort of Palace of the People, embodying civic pride and a desire to elevate the common man (the city fathers wouldn’t have been able to cope with a common woman) and show him a world far distant from the smoky, overcrowded dwellings where industrial workers produced enough surplus wealth to pay for extravagant and irreplaceable public buildings.

It housed municipal offices where people on the way to pay their rates or their gas bills could pass through the building’s stunning atrium, look up at the sky and perhaps imagine that they were in a cathedral.

There was also a central police station on the premises, which lasted until the 1960s, when it was replaced by the Milgarth police HQ, which has now in turn been bulldozed. Tempus fugit, as they say.

You can still see, because painting and decorating seems to have had a low priority over the years, signs on the walls of the library pointing to the CID department or the Policewomen’s Room. There is also a strong-room guarded by a heavy steel door with a complex locking mechanism which was once used for important police business but is now a storage room because, since its opening, the library has accumulated hundreds of thousands of books, pamphlets, newsletters and pictures and needs all the space it can get.

Not all the library’s collection is open for gazing but it’s all digitally registered, so if you have a particular interest (shopkeepers in Seacroft, for example, or badger incursions in Baildon), they’ll direct you as best they can to the relevant publications.

Our tall, bearded guide, employed by Leeds City Libraries department, was amiable and informative and said that a relative of his remembered that the former police strong-room was once used to store books thought unsuitable for children. I love the idea that there might have been pre-digital children ready to break through a heavy-metal barrier just to read a dodgy book.

In the 1970s the library building, presumably weighed down by its ever-accumulating contents, became structurally unsound and there were plans to demolish it, the horrifying thing being that it would have been replaced by a ghastly concrete pile which would by now have been bulldozed on taste grounds.

But one way or another, the library has survived, even though heavily-concreted structural work has compromised its original mission to be a light and airy relief from the dark conditions of industrial Leeds.

But it’s still worth wandering around the building, best done on an organised libraries department trip which lets you into areas not generally open to the public. The place is stuffed with statues, elaborately-tiled walls and, of course, the seductive smell of old books.

Its greatest glory is the Tiled Hall, which was opened as a reading room but was also, I think, meant to reflect Leeds’s intellectual status and growing wealth.

Then, in a move which now seems insane, it was given a false ceiling, covered in shelving and painted over in the 1950s and 60s, so that people forgot what a treasure they had lost until the room was restored in 2007. Its present use as a cafe serving the library and adjoining art gallery seems true to its original purpose – after all, what’s the use of a people’s palace that doesn’t serve a nice cup of tea?

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