British Library hushes rumours of second Yorkshire outpost

Inside the British Library at Boston Spa. Picture by James Hardisty
Inside the British Library at Boston Spa. Picture by James Hardisty
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It has been part of the national heritage since 1753 but an institution in its own right for less than half a century. As the British Library prepares to mark its 50th anniversary, another landmark has appeared on its horizon.

The prospect of a Yorkshire branch of the nation’s reading room, to be known as the British Library North, has been discussed in secret meetings between one of its principal benefactors and the chief executive of the region’s biggest council, it has emerged.

Minutes of board meetings, released to The Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act and seen by The Yorkshire Post, include the suggestion that a new building in Leeds could be sourced for the enterprise.

However, as befitting a library, neither party was prepared to say much out loud yesterday.

The British Library, constituted by law in 1973 but with its roots in the British Museum’s Department of Printed Books, already has a major centre outside Leeds, a modern storage facility at Boston Spa that houses the UK’s 300-year-old national newspaper archive.

But the board papers reveal plans for a further investment, with the possibility of a second location.

Sir John Ritblat, the property developer whose portfolio includes the Meadowhall Centre at Sheffield and after whom a gallery at the British Library in London is named, held talks with Tom Riordan, chief executive at Leeds City Council, to discuss the improvements at Boston Spa and “potential locations for a British Library North”, according to the papers.

Their meeting followed a presentation by the council to the Directors of the Library, at its headquarters in St Pancras, about opportunities for the organisations to collaborate on Leeds 2023, a cultural festival which coincides with the 50th anniversary.

The minutes note the likelihood of the two working together on a “culture bid” for Leeds.

However, the Library insisted last night that while one of its “strategic priorities” was to “substantially improve and expand our long-standing presence in Yorkshire”, its focus was on improving its existing building, not finding a new one.

“While we are exploring the possibility of a presence in Leeds as one of the legacies of Leeds 2023, the focus of the programme is at present very much on expanding and developing our existing base at Boston Spa,” it said in a statement.

“The primary focus of our British Library North programme is to invest in the estate on our existing site at Boston Spa, to expand archival-standard storage facilities for the collections under our custodianship.”

The papers reveal that the Library had invited Mr Riordan to make a presentation about Leeds’ cultural aspirations at a meeting last May at which it resolved to put a business case to the Government for extending the Boston Spa site.

Baroness Blackstone, the Library’s chair, said the council’s approach and objectives – which, said Mr Riordan, included not encouraging out-of-town retail and business centres, were “a good fit” with those of the Library, and she confirmed the Board’s support for further collaboration.

Back in Leeds, the council said it had “ambitious plans for making the most of our cultural strengths” and looked forward to the Library playing an important part in the Leeds cultural, digital and economic landscape”.

The Leeds 2023 cultural festival was conceived as a home-grown replacement for what it had hoped would be its year as European Capital of Culture.

It was in mid-bid for the title when it became clear that a British city would be ineligible, following Brexit.

A Leeds Culture Trust has since been created to oversee a £35m “cultural investment programme”to “celebrate the city’s cultural life and bring the best global arts to Leeds”. A third of the budget is currently in place.

A four-year preliminary programme of events will begin this year, with the British Library North project envisaged as a legacy to “ensure the momentum will continue far into the future”.