By luck, a short visit to Leeds coincided with a monthly guided tour of the Leeds Library, one of the oldest subscription libraries in Britain. Founded in 1768, it soon outgrew its rented premises, and in 1808 built its own elegant, neoclassical building in what was then one of the principal streets of Leeds, Commercial Street. The library occupies the upper floor and above that a mezzanine floor in this now Grade II listed building.
The wise people who created the library had the nous to create a business model which has allowed the library to continue functioning after many other privately subscribed libraries closed down – the ground floor was dedicated to retail space which they still rent out to commercial tenants. In addition they have some 800 paying members and originally the membership also had a share in the library.
The library has a friendly and venerable atmosphere and plenty of tucked away corners and window seats to read, research, think or doze. The furniture both fixed and moveable is mainly 18th and 19th century and if we’re lucky the Library will continue to cherish it. Buy new books, certainly, but leave the furniture. I noticed, among other things, some fine Windsor chairs, and a library ladder designed to work even without a rail along which to run it.
I also enjoyed seeing, among the miles of marvelous looking books, a bookcase dedicated to the Loeb Classical series, one for the green Greeks and one for the red Romans. (Were the respective liveries chosen on the basis of such alliteration?)
And it has its own ghost, the spirit of a librarian past. He apparently popped his head around the corner of a bookcase sometime after he died, to be spotted by a successor.
The library has about 150,000 books and adds 1,500 a year. To find out more, to visit, and to support the library through membership or other means, please consult their website.
Details: The Leeds Library, 18 Commercial Street, Leeds LS2, Yorkshire, UK