Leeds Library: Hidden cultural gem amid city centre life

SHHHH: Inside the reading room at Leeds Library. PIC: Simon Hulme
SHHHH: Inside the reading room at Leeds Library. PIC: Simon Hulme
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It remains a hidden gem above one of the busiest shopping streets in the UK.

Located up above the shops at 18, Commercial Street, lies an important piece of the city’s cultural history.

The independent Leeds Library is open to members who pay an annual subscription and has been there since 1768.

Shelves of books containing collections which are particularly rich in travel, topography, biography, history and literature. There are long runs of periodicals, popular novels, children’s books and Civil War pamphlets and Reformation Tracts. About 1,500 new books and audio/visual items are added every year.

Librarian Geoffrey Forster looks out from the well stacked bookshelves from the historic windows of the Grade II listed building. He chats as he looks at two entrances to the new Trinity Shopping centre opposite, due to open on March 21.

Mr Forster said: “In this increasingly digital age, books are still a big part of modern life and I think they always will be. I welcome additions such as the e-book reader, but don’t have one myself. I prefer holding a book.”

The library is funded by its membership subscription and also receives contributions from nearby shops.

It was founded in 1768 with just 104 members from the middle classes, by people like merchants and lawyers. Sir Joseph Priestly was a founding member and secretary.

Mr Forster, who himself is a collector of old books, said it was founded as a ‘community’ library for the people who lived and worked nearby. He added: “It has come full circle as again the city centre really has its own community. In 1768 there were no public libraries. Books were very expensive and were only for the wealthy people. For the ordinary person, a book was an unaffordable luxury.

“A group of the wealthiest people grouped together to form a library and to build a society for the future.

He said the oldest book in the collection was from 1494 Travels to the Holyland, by John De Mandeville, but it was not available for lending.

The Leeds Library is a wonderful mix of the old and the new located at the very heart of a busy shopping area, on the edge of the new Trinity Shopping Centre.

It was founded initially as a proprietary subscription library and is now the oldest surviving example of a ‘private’ library in the UK. It became a charity in 2008.

Other events taking place include Saturday and midweek talks, town walks and visits plus the annual Joseph Priestley lecture organised with Leeds Philosophical & Literary Society.

The library is now open every Saturday morning from 9.30am-1pm, as well as weekdays from 9am-5pm.

Details at: www.theleedslibrary.org.uk

Kevin Hollinrake MP for Thirsk and Malton Picture: Anna Gowthorpe

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