Historic Leeds Library seeks new members

LEEDS LIBRARY: Head librarian Geoffrey Forster pictured at the library in 2012.
LEEDS LIBRARY: Head librarian Geoffrey Forster pictured at the library in 2012.
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JUST six years ago, one of the city’s (not to mention the country’s) oldest institutions opened its membership to anyone and today The Leeds Library, based in Commercial Street in the city centre is making a fresh appeal for members.

The library is (or should that be was) one of the great secrets of the city and, like all the best secrets, it was one hidden in plane view, being located as it is above the Britannia building society on Commercial Street.

Indeed, unless you are already armed with the information pertaining to its existence, you could walk right past and not even know it.

The library itself was founded in 1768. It is the oldest proprietary library in Yorkshire and next to Liverpool Lyceum (founded some 10 years earlier) is the oldest existing proprietary library in England.

It was founded by Dr Joseph Priestley, that most noble son of Yorkshire who had fingers in many pies and had so much energy for each of his projects it is hard to fathom how he found the time.

The inaugural meeting of the library was held on August 9, 1768 at Mr Myers newsroom, Briggate and a local bookseller by the name of Joseph Ogle was appointed librarian and a room occupied for the purpose at his house on Kirkgate. It wasn’t until 1825 that a full-time salaried libraries was appointed. To begin with subscribers paid one guinea upon admission and five shillings a year for the purchase of books.

It has an original Dawin edition and some of its other books date back to the 1600s.

Some of the original rules make interesting reading, Law IV states: ‘All the members shall have equal power in the society so that in all cases the vote of any one person shall have as much weight as the vote of any other whatever and every person without distinction shall be of equally capable of being elected into any of the above-mentioned offices’, although the rule was later modified so it was just the committee who elected officers.

Once inside, the library offers a surprisingly tranquil refuge from the hustle and bustle which is just metres away. The main room is book-ended by two impressive spiral staircases, its cloistered confines full of soothing silence. Some of the books, documents and maps contained therein date back hundreds of years.

The original list of members lists 105 names and by 1926 there were around 500 proprietors, the price of a share then being £14, the annual subscription three guineas. In 1926, the library had something in the order of 80,000 volumes covering all manner of topics.

An interesting episode in its history relates to a rule introduced in 1776 which allowed the committee “power of suppressing any book of an indecent and immoral tendency until the next annual meeting.”

The rule was put into effect on the same day it was passed and resulted in two books, Mistakes of the Heart and Pupil of Pleasure being destroyed - a move which did not sit well with all members and indeed, in 1777, a new rule was introduced to supersede it, stating there could be no future censorship without the consent of all the members of the library - something which was always going to be unlikely, or at the very least difficult.

Former Leeds West Lib Dem MP Michael Meadowcroft, chair of trustees at The Leeds Library, said: “It was the first building on Commercial Street, the founders had the foresight to create shops on the ground floor, which is where 70 per cent of our income comes from. We have a vast collection, including some really rare books and around 60,000 books in our basement.

“Of course, until 2006, there was no point in publicising the library, it was run by 500 proprietors and there was a waiting list of 160. We’re among oldest institutions in the city.” Call 0113 245 3071.

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