Central Leeds: Inside Britain's oldest surviving subscription library

Looking to retreat in the pages of a good book? There is nowhere better, says Stephen McClarence, than Britain's oldest surviving subscription library.

I’m in Commercial Street in the centre of Leeds, but it’s not all commercial. Just past Monsoon, there’s an intriguing doorway between the Co-operative Bank and Paperchase. I press the intercom, push open the door, climb the stone staircase – and at the top is The Leeds Library, which calls itself “possibly the city’s best-kept secret”.

Librarian Jane Riley is taking a phone call at the counter. “We’re not a public library,” she’s telling the caller. No indeed. The Leeds Library, which celebrates its 250th anniversary next year (2018), is Britain’s oldest surviving subscription library “of its type” (a technicality: we won’t worry about that).

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This handsome Georgian building, dating from before the first public libraries, is a cherishable world of its own. It has more than 140,000 books and periodicals dating back to the 15th century; together with CDs and DVDs, they’re housed in a series of rooms with shelves from floor to ceiling.

PIC: Bruce Rollinson

There’s everything from Early Commons Petitions in the English Parliament c1290 – c1420 and Aristotle and the Earlier Peripatetics to Patricia Cornwell, Stephen King and John Grisham via Stanley Gibbons stamp catalogues, English Girlhood at School and Dad’s Army: The Making of a Television Legend.

The main first floor room has an elegant gallery with two spiral staircases and a “coffee corner” with winged armchairs and plenty of cosy conviviality.

This isn’t a stuffy, starchy place. No-one hisses “Shhh..” if you start talking – except perhaps in the Quiet Room, where a polite but firm vintage notice requests: “For the sake of those who wish to read, it is requested that NO CONVERSATION be carried on in this room.” Only a rock guitarist busking in the street below undermines the sanctuary-like silence.

“This is a sociable place; we’re quite noisy, very friendly and bustling,” says Jane Riley, a woman of exuberant enthusiasm. “People come in to read the papers and talk. And we offer a personal service. If there’s a new Ian Rankin, we might reserve it for Mrs So-and-So. We know the members – and we know about their cats and dogs.”

PIC: Bruce Rollinson

There are 880 or so members, currently paying an annual subscription of £120 a year (£170 for a couple, £190 for a family, and £60 for a full-time student or 18-25 year old). ”Cheaper than many gyms,” says Jane.

The demographic is very different from when she started here 15 years ago.

“Then it was very much white, middle-class, middle-aged, and members had to be approved by the committee, who were nearly all male – businessmen, lawyers, not ordinary working-class people.

“We used to get called a gentlemen’s club. When we do tours, people sometimes say: ‘We’ve been trying to get in here for years’, as though we were the Masons or something. And it’s a classic place for people saying: ‘We never knew you were here.’”

Carl Hutton, the library’s chief executive, certainly didn’t know it was until he came for interview. “I struggled to find it,” he says. “I would have walked down Commercial Street hundreds of times and didn’t know it was here. The perception in the past might have been that we were quite insular.” He recalls one veteran member remarking: “When I joined, you had to have the credentials of an archbishop.”

Now the library has a mission to make the membership, as Carl says, “more representative of the people of Leeds”. Numbers were once limited to 500; now people are being actively encouraged to join and there’s a target of 1,000 members by the end of next year (whose anniversary celebrations will include a September conference, an exhibition and a book celebrating its history).

Projecting a more accessible image – “we can’t be a museum piece” – involves events, most of them open to everyone – poetry nights, talks, tours, a film club.

Carl, former Northern events manager for English Heritage, has been here since September 2016. “When I first came, I was stunned by the nature of the space,” he says. “It was quite jaw-dropping... the sense of people reading books here for more than 200 years.”

Despite its history, the library – open to researchers – does Twitter and Facebook and, away from the virtual world, runs a “word of the day” project. “Use a new word in conversation today,” says a sign at the front door and an out-of-the-way word is featured and defined. It’s “understrapper” the day I visit – “an assistant or junior officer”. No, me neither.

“There’s one man who comes every day to look at the word because he wants to introduce it into conversation,” says Jane. The sign has become a sort of cult. “Forty or 50 people will photograph it every morning,” says Carl.

Leeds Library has occupied its present premises since 1808 and at one time shared them with the offices of the Leeds Intelligencer, a forerunner of The Yorkshire Post.

It started out, however, in a back room at a city-centre bookseller, where an early visitor was James Boswell, Dr Johnson’s biographer.

“In Leeds, where one would not expect it,” he wrote, “there is a very good public library, where strangers are treated with great civility.”

The collection – augmented by 1,500 books and audio books every year – reflects generations of members’ tastes and is particularly strong on 18th and 19th century travel, Victorian and Edwardian fiction, history, science, the arts and literature (though the last stock check was in 1887).

There are children’s books, crime fiction and popular novels, with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall the most borrowed in recent years. There are, says Jane, “books that other places have long got rid of – lots of good forgotten authors”. And there are shelves of older books in a former office.

“This is the treasure house, if you like,” she says, unlocking the door: more floor-to-ceiling shelves. She points out a copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. It’s undated, but they know it’s a 1859 first edition because on page 20, “species” is misspelt “speceies”. It’s been rebound and isn’t, it must be said, in pristine condition. “That’s because it was a borrowable book,” she says.

But are printed books as important these days? “There’s something about holding and reading a book that you don’t get from reading on a screen,” says Carl. He gives me a tour. First the impressive “New Room”, a Victorian extension, with another gallery and more wing armchairs; then the Quiet Room (two suitably quiet readers), and finally the warren of basement storage rooms, which partly runs under Commercial Street.

There are huge bound volumes of the Leeds Mercury from the 1860s and shelves of little-remembered fiction – WJ Knox Little’s The Waif from the Waves and The Threshold of the Unseen; Sheila Kaye-Smith’s Shepherds in Sackcloth and The Tramping Methodist.

At random we pull out the Navy List for 1841, listing the crews of ships called Pickle, Pigeon and Pigmy; Pike, Pioneer and Pique. “It’s the sort of thing that members wouldn’t necessarily want to read,” says Carl as we climb back up the stairs. “But they might gain solace from knowing we have it.”

Three or four times most weeks for the past 65 years, Miss Judith Pickard has been visiting the Leeds Library. As its oldest member (the youngest is 17), she’s been a regular since before the Queen’s Coronation. “It’s been a constant in my life,” she says. “It was a priority; everything else had to be fitted in around it.”

Miss Pickard, a former legal executive, discovered the library in September 1952. “A young man sneaked me in and talked to the librarian while I looked at Vogue to see what was fashionable,” she recalls.

“I hadn’t known the library existed, although I was at school in Leeds all through the war. It was secret. I couldn’t believe that in the midst of a city this place existed.

“It doesn’t look very different today from how it looked then, though there was no ‘coffee corner’. That area used to be occupied by senior gentlemen who went in for a sleep. There weren’t many ladies in those days; I suppose they had too much to do.

“The library was solemn and hushed then. When you went in, it was like going into a cathedral. You felt you had to be on your best behaviour. And in those days it was a closed shop. You had to wait for a member to die before you could become a member yourself.

“There was a ‘we and they’ atmosphere. You felt tolerated as a member. And there were very few events and activities. They’re more amenable to change now, bringing it up to date and introducing it to people – and the biggest change is that younger people are coming in. There’s an atmosphere of freedom now, it’s more light-hearted.

“I read anything between two covers. I didn’t stick to one genre, though I’ve always liked classics and detective novels; I’m a very, very quick reader.

“If I didn’t have the library I’d be very sad; it’s been a little oasis. If I was down to my last farthing, I’d spend it on my subscription.”