The Leeds Library opens its doors

The chief executive of The Leeds Library Andrew Morrison.
The chief executive of The Leeds Library Andrew Morrison.
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All this week The Leeds Library is holding a series of talks, readings and performances. Chris Bond went to find out more.

IT’S quite easy to miss the doorway. I managed to do it two or three times before I noticed the lettering and the small window display.

Perhaps it’s because you’re not expecting to see a library smack bang in the middle of a busy city centre, sandwiched as it is between a bank and a card shop, a stone’s throw from the bustling Trinity shopping centre.

The Leeds Library has been at its present home on Commercial Street for more than two centuries, yet there are people who have worked on this busy street for years who don’t know it’s here.

The library started out back in 1768 above a bookseller’s shop and is now home to tens 
of thousands of books, everything from a dusty-looking copy of Studies in Bird Migration, to the latest Jo Nesbo thriller – and just about anything in between.

From the minute you walk up the staircase that runs alongside the impressive tiled walls it’s hard not to be seduced by the library’s charm.

It’s an oasis of calm without the fussiness we sometimes associate with these venerable institutions.

It doesn’t feel like a formal, deferential place, and throughout this week the library is holding a programme of readings, talks, art projections and musical performances to encourage people to come in and have a look.

The programme revolves around the motif of a diamond and the idea of the library being a “hidden gem” in the city, and has been funded by Leeds Inspired, Arts Council Yorkshire and the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society.

As part of the project the library, in collaboration with Leeds-based organisation Alchemy, has commissioned local artists, musicians and poets to come up with ways of celebrating the library.

“It has been here nearly 250 years and within it are 150,000 books, each of which contains a brilliant story,” says Andrew Morrison, the library’s chief executive.

“No matter who you are, if you love books then there’s something in here for you. So what we’re trying to do is inspire people and at the same time raise the library’s profile. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a little six year-old kid or a 83 year-old professor, there will be something happening for you.”

It started out as a subscription library and continues to follow a similar format to this day. In the past you had to live in the city to be a member but now that’s changed. So, too, have the number of members.

There was a limit of 500 meaning anyone wishing to join had to wait until someone died. But this rule was scrapped in 2008 and the number of members since then has grown to around 740.

While many members are retired there is a growing number of students, artists, academics and office workers who are joining, united by their love of books and the chance to get their hands on rare first editions.

“It is a membership library and you have to pay, but it’s not elitist, it’s always been a very general library for a very general readership,” explains Andrew.

“If you look around it’s a bunch of people who love books and magazines and reading.”

The library’s collection has been built up over time. “We have more books on Japan than we do on Leeds, so it’s a truly global collection. We’ve been here nearly 250 years and we still operate on the same principles and that is we buy books based on the recommendations of members. So the library reflects the interests of the people of Leeds.”

As a result it covers a wide variety of topics. “We’ve got this amazing collection of 18th century books on travel, industry, and modern crime fiction. There’s a fascinating narrative to how the collection has grown. We can tell you who made the recommendations, so as a piece of social history of Leeds it’s unique.”

The library has shaped the city centre in more ways than one. “The architect Thomas Ambler and Sir John Barran, who was a big textile magnate, got together in the library poring over our books to design St Paul’s House [on Park Square]. It’s designed in a Moorish style and we have the books that inspired them to do it.”

You might assume, given that it was created during more conservative times, that it would have been something of a gentleman’s club. But it wasn’t.

“Ever since the beginning it’s been open to men and women. So we have cutting edge feminism from the 1790s all the way through to bizarre books on how a wife should behave, written by a poet who never married in his life.”

Part of Andrew’s job is to help make people aware that this literary gem is on their doorstep. “There are people who’ve worked on this street for years and years and we get them in and they say ‘wow, I never knew this was here.’”

Some people find libraries a bit intimidating, boring even. But Andrew says they don’t have to be.

“We don’t wear white gloves and any member can ask for any book. We have this unique, amazing collection and it’s about saying to people, ‘come and see us, come and have a play.’”