From receiving my first lending library ticket as a young child, supposedly revising for A Levels at the city’s reference library, researching at the university library and right up to the present day, I’ve always loved libraries.
Before the age of Google and Youtube, libraries were essential for completing essays and dissertations and allowing us to pursue hobbies. Also, the cost of novels, poetry books and biographies would have been prohibitive were it not for the council lending libraries.
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a talk at the Leeds Library, now the oldest surviving example of a ‘private’ library in the UK. It was founded in 1768 with just 104 members from the middle classes, by people like merchants and lawyers. There were no public libraries at that time and books were very expensive so for the ordinary person, a book was an unaffordable luxury. This subscription only library with its imposing spiral staircase and rooms lined with floor to ceiling with shelves full of books, became a charity in 2008. The majority of the residents of Leeds are completely unaware of its existence although it is in the centre of the city. The oldest book in the collection is from 1494 and I was particularly interested in the personal columns of the Leeds Mercury newspaper which was published between 1807 and 1920.
In these days of cost cutting of public services, it is heartening to know that some libraries are thriving. One such library in the nearby village of Shadwell is run by a pool of about 60 volunteers and is open for the lending of books for 4 x 2 hour sessions each week. Shadwell Library Community and Arts Centre took a lease from Leeds City Council 4 years ago under the Community Asset transfer Scheme when the library was threatened with closure. The facility is open to all, not just residents of Shadwell. They have a cafe, have regular talks, often by their flourishing History Society as well as activities for people of all ages. To provide additional income, the Library is hired out to organisations such as Weight Watchers and Education Classes.
The building may be 200 years old, but the concept is a very modern one and they have plans for play readings and musical concerts. Such an inspirational project.