Tucked away behind an ordinary-looking doorway on a busy shopping street in the city centre, the Leeds Library is a bit of a hidden gem.
This year, however, it has stepped into the spotlight as it celebrates its 250th anniversary with an extensive programme of events commemorating its foundation in 1768. It seems somehow very fitting that this place of learning, literature and culture, the oldest surviving subscription library in the UK, has inspired a series of artistic responses, the latest of which is brand new stage play.
Co-commissioned with Leeds Playhouse, The Things We Wouldn’t Otherwise Find by local playwright Emma Adams will be performed next month in the magnificent Georgian setting of the library before touring to public libraries across the Leeds city region. “I have always genuinely loved libraries – they have always felt quite magical for me,” says Adams. “And they are important not just for what they hold but also for what they represent – they are places where very different people have the opportunity to sit side by side.” It is this democratising aspect that Adams was also keen to celebrate in her play. “The anniversary was a really lovely reason to write the play, but as well as making a piece that reflected on the experience of going to the Leeds Library, I wanted to write something that would speak about libraries in general. That was also a big part of my thinking.” As research for the play, she spent time in the Leeds Library and at Leeds Central Library speaking to librarians and, like all good writers, eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. “I spent a lot of time sitting in libraries drawing,” she says. “When you draw people think you are concentrating really hard on what you are drawing.”
She also deliberately engaged with books she might not normally choose – hence the play’s title – which was partly inspired by her own experiences as a young reader. “I found the indexing system of libraries quite mysterious, so I never looked things up, instead I would just find books by walking up and down the aisles. Out of that came some really lovely moments of serendipity and occasional discoveries.” While Adams is a passionate advocate of libraries, and fears for their future as they struggle to survive in the face of funding cuts and challenges to their relevance in the digital age, she wanted to avoid being didactic.
“I didn’t want to write something that made people feel as though they are being lectured to,” she says. “The play is funny at times and sometimes a bit rude and naughty. There is always a part of me that wants to break the rules and shout in a library,” she adds, laughing. There is one overarching story containing four stand-alone stories, all brought to life, along with a whole host of characters, by just two actors.
“I wanted to make a story that’s really good fun and then inside that there is a gentle message saying ‘do we value this and is there a future for this?.”
The Leeds Library, November 6-17, then touring to public libraries throughout Leeds. leedsplayhouse.org.uk