As Leeds Library prepares to mark its 250th anniversary, Neil Hudson chats to those in charge about its past, present and future...
A performance of Frankenstein, a dance performance by Northern Ballet, movie screenings, fevered debates on everything from Brexit to writing, music by Opera North and open mic poetry nights - not things you would tend to associate with The Leeds Library. But as the city’s oldest cultural institution prepares to celebrate its 250th anniversary, it is forging ahead with an ambitious, some might say revolutionary, programme of events which it hopes will help ensure it has a vibrant future.
The library itself - not to be confused with Leeds Central Library - is something of an oddity in that most people will be unaware of its location, which is above a row of shops on Commercial Street, close to its junction with Albion Street. Until 10 years ago, there was another obstacle too, in that it was a private subscription library and very much a closed shop in terms of membership.
Times change. The debate over whether to embrace charitable status was hotly debated at the time but members eventually backed the plan, which not only saved them £1,000 a week but opened the library up to anyone. The library was founded in 1768 and originally occupied a room above a bookshop at the Sign of the Dial on Kirkgate, moving to its present location in 1808. It remains the oldest surviving subscription library of its kind in the British Isles.
But, in the age of the internet, how does a library remain relevant? That’s the question its members have been wrestling with and judging by their roster of events, they’ve done a pretty good job of transforming it into something which might be considered more relevant to the modern era.
President Dr Kevin Grady, formerly director of Leeds Civic Trust, joined in the 1980s. He says: “It was a traditional historic library, where people borrowed books, there might have been the odd lecture but that was it. In recent years, we have turned that round, so people come here for all sorts of presentations, lectures and performances.”
He’s not wrong. The library’s calendar for this year alone has 200 events and in the past year they have played host to Opera North, Leeds Light Night, the music school from the University of Leeds, Leeds Playhouse, not to mention a constantly updating list of authors, speakers and performance artists.
Next week The Leeds Library will host an international conference on the history of books to mark the institution’s 250th anniversary.
Carl Hutton, 45, has been chief executive of The Leeds Library for almost two years. “From our point of view, its a good reflection of how we got here but we are not just navel-gazing, we want to know where we will be in the next five or ten years. The fact this library receives rents from the shops below has been its salvation, because across the country, many subscriptions libraries have closed. That was a great piece of foresight by the original proprietors.
“Right now, we are enjoying our highest membership in history, with 920 members. Since we became a charity, we have opened up to so many more people and organisations and we expect that growth to continue, even though we don’t have a sales team. We are trying to balance the old with the new. One of the tough questions we had to ask ourselves was, what is it to be a library in the 21st Century? What does it mean to come in here? For me, it’s about engaging with other organisations in the city and making connections which will last. The worst thing we could possibly do would be to have a big shebang this year and then next year, everyone’s forgotten about us.”
That idea of putting the library at the centre of a kind of connective network of art institutions across the city seems to be working.
Dr Grady says: “I know from 30 years’ experience, that until recently, there’s been an issue about cultural institutions not talking to one another. The city has a tremendous offer in terms of dance, music, drama, literature and art, and The Leeds Library can play an important role in helping to bring people in the cultural sector together.”
In recent months, the library has also hosted a series of quite lively debates, including its bespoke ‘Chelping’ sessions, a kind of open-mic poetry session. In a way, it’s almost a return to their roots, because the library was founded by none other than Joseph Priestley, who was renowned for his zeal for public debate.
Yet despite all this talk of modernising and opening the library up, it remains as true to its heritage as ever. To push through its timeworn wooden doors and walk between its towering shelves is to enter another world, one at once quilted in the gentle. re-assuring calm of tradition, where curiosity seems to have taken up permanent residence. Beneath spiral staircases sits an old-fashioned service counter, while over in one corner the aroma of coffee and the quiet hum of conversation drift through the air. Step into the New Room (built in the 1880s) and you are met with a sense of grandeur and awe, not least that such a sanctuary of quietude can exist just a stone’s throw from the bustling city beyond, with all its modern trappings.
Dr Grady enthuses: “We have members who enjoy the ambiance of the building and sheer pleasure of sitting in historic environment with all these historic books at their finger tips, We’ve even had authors tell us the ideas for their next books came while sitting here.”
The library’s collection is vast, extending to some 140,000 volumes, 70,000 of which are on display, with another 40,000 in the basement and the rest stored off-site. It’s a collection which is ever expanding too, with the library buying around 1,500 new works every year, a situation which has prompted them to ask another difficult question: where to expand or move? It’s a subject which needs to be handled with great care, as both Carl and Dr Grady are well aware.
Carl says diplomatically it’s “understand that there is a conversation that needs to happen”, while Dr Grady points out that the library’s New Room was created in response to the same question about a shortage of space just over a century after the library was founded. “The library owned the land at the rear and they needed more space and so they built the New Room,” he points out.
Whether the library remains in situ, expands or moves, one thing seems certain: after 250 years, it has emerged from its shell and fully intends to become a greater cultural force in the city, partly by acting as a venue for performances from other institutions and artists and partly by pursuing the traditions it has espoused for the last two-and-a-half centuries.
Carl adds: “There’s something about the human condition where people like to be tactile. Books are tangible, there’s a sense of progress and of completion when you read and finish a book you don’ get from the internet. Reading a book in a quiet corner with a coffee, it’s something the internet will never be.”
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The Leeds Library was founded by Jospeh Priestley and originally was limited to 500 members. In 2008, it took the decision to become a charity, thereby cutting costs and increasing its membership.
Some of its oldest works are Reformation tracts which date to the 1480s. It also has first edition copies of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. One of its more modern acquisitions is David Hockney’s A Bigger Book, which cost about £1,800 and is so large (measuring several feet across) it needs its own stand.
The library’s collection extends to about 140,000 volumes and it buys around 1,500 new books each year.
It has just launched its autumn programme of events. A commemorative book, Through The Pages, will be published this month to coincide with The Leeds Library’s international academic conference, from September 20-22, with speakers from over 13 countries, taking place at venues across the city. A celebration dinner will be held at The Queens Hotel on Friday September 21 with the Bard of Barnsley himself, Ian McMillan, as guest speaker.
September will also see the launch of its Through The Pages Exhibition, which will take visitors on a journey around the magical rooms of the library with displays presenting the story of how the Library was founded and has thrived in the city over 250 years.
The exhibition opened yesterday and will run until Saturday November 23 (Mon–Fri, 1pm-3pm, Sat 11am-1pm, Sun, 11am- 3pm).
Membership costs £132 a year/£66 a year for students/under 25s. Contact them on 0113 245 3071.