A very special library with Alex in Leeds

Hurrah, we have a second guest blog! This time the EmilyBooks pages are graced by the presence of lovely Alex in Leeds. As well as incisive book reviews, Alex’s blog offers occasional culinary diversions and other literary treats, such as her ingenious Book Jar – a delightfully serendipitous way to choose one’s reading. Here, Ms Alex introduces us to Leeds Library, a hidden gem of this northern city.

If you would like to write a guest blog for Emilybooks then please get in touch here.

The Leeds Library - a hidden gem

Tucked away on the first floor of a central Leeds street, above a grandly fronted row of shops with no outside signage, is The Leeds Library. It’s one of the best kept secrets in the city.

Founded in 1768, most likely by the scientist Joseph Priestley, the library was originally housed above a bookseller’s shop and a rather small affair. Then, in 1808, the members took the bold decision to build their current premises. Their canny (and unusual) idea to include shops on the ground floor ensured the library’s survival – the rents collected have given the library the financial stability to withstand war, recession and over two centuries of changing tastes.

It’s not just its age or secret location that makes the Leeds Library special though, it’s the experience it offers as a rare example of a private subscription library.

The first time I visited the library was on a Heritage Open Day nearly three years ago. I admit I wasn’t sure what to expect but the idea of a members-only library with an annual fee seemed remarkably snobbish to me. Heading up the staircase and suddenly finding myself in an Austen-era room complete with wooden spiral staircases, balconies and beautiful fitted bookcases made me feel like I’d stumbled into a rather pragmatic paradise… and I admit, I could suddenly see why you’d want to keep such a place independent and self-funded.

I left the library that day feeling slightly bewitched and a month later, rather to my own surprise, I signed up as a member. I never thought of a private library as being for the likes of me but actually the reality is worth paying for. It’s not just that I can drop in and spend hours reading or working in this city-centre base, or that there’s a tea/coffee making corner and comfy chairs. Being a member has also shaped the way I read, because its collection is wildly different to the public library system and far, far quirkier.

This is in part because most books are bought at the request of the members – there’s a book by the entrance where you add any title you think should be purchased and every month a selection of these titles is acquired – and partly because the library is buying with a long term view.

A choice pile of books from The Leeds Library

The Leeds Library owns all the Persephone Books, lots of Folio Society editions and you can borrow anything under 100 years old. Nineteenth-century travel books might keep their spot on the shelves but the latest crime thrillers are likely to be sold off after a year or two – after all you can get them anywhere else. Fads don’t impact the collection as they do the public library’s so there’s no sudden influx of 5:2 diet books or Dan Brown knock-offs, for example, and although you might find the odd airport bestseller, you’re more likely to find titles from this year’s prize lists.

Not only is the collection radically different but so is the attitude. I can borrow up to 30 books, CDs, tapes or DVDs at a time. Most books are loaned for three months, new titles are marked as ‘In Demand’ and can only be borrowed for a month (which stops you borrowing new shiny things unless you actually will read them!). With about 900 members it’s a lot friendlier than the public library and much less formal. Most revolutionary of all, there are no fines.

I find myself reading books I didn’t know existed but can’t resist. Books on medieval gardens, lesser known classics, accounts of nineteenth-century travellers walking from Paris to Siberia… I browse the shelves whenever I’m there and, even two years since joining, I still discover new surprises.

It’s not perfect. There are plans to add a large entrance room to the ground floor to make the library’s presence more obvious and funds are being raised for better storage for the older books not out on the shelves. But I’ll take a quirky bookish heaven over perfection any day. If you’re ever in Leeds, I’d love to show you around…

The Quiet Room at The Leeds Library - who can resist?

Guest blog addict? You can read the last guest blog, from charming Canadian Cosybooks, here.

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14 Responses to “A very special library with Alex in Leeds”

  1. Today I’m Over At EmilyBooks… | Alex In Leeds Says:

    […] before the fabulous members-only library I belong to but today I am thrilled to be guest posting over at EmilyBooks sharing a couple of photos and explaining how I became a member and how it differs from the public […]

  2. miladysboudoir Says:

    I too have been a member of the fab Leeds Library for a few years now. Where would I be without it? It is so worth the subscription. Several of those books in the New Room picture have been borrowed by me and some even bought for me!

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds absolutely gorgeous Alex – I’m jealous!

    • Deborah Mika Says:

      I soooo agree. I’m jealous too. I have heard that my local area is one of the worst for books, so wish we had something like this. How much is the subscription out of interest?

      • Alex in Leeds Says:

        It was £75 but went up to £120 this year – £10 a month is great value though!

  4. dangermom Says:

    Oh my goodness. It’s like paradise on earth. If I ever get to the UK I will visit you just to get to see it!

  5. Wendy Says:

    I’m really jealous. We don’t have anything like that in my area in The Netherlands, I guess.

  6. Travellin' Penguin Says:

    Everytime Alex posts up something about the private library in Leeds I go green with envy. It is such a beautiful library and a wonderful concept. Just to sit there in a chair, have a cup of tea or coffee and be surrounded by the ambience would be enough for me. Love this post. Thank you Alex and Emily

  7. Melwyk Says:

    I used to work at a library that was originally a subscription library; when I was there, there were still membership fees but it really was devolving into a public library re: book choices. Very nice post, this, and if I am ever in Leeds I will most certainly be taking you up on your offer of a tour! 😉

  8. smithereens Says:

    It sounds and looks like heaven! I didn’t know such subscription libraries even existed (in France, there was (still is?) a network of catholic subscription libraries, to be sure to read something appropriate… not my idea of a library)

  9. Claire 'Word by Word' Says:

    What a gem! A visit there would brighten up any day I am sure and I can well imagine it’s worth it to subscribe, just to evoke the kind of feeling you get on entering. Enjoy 🙂

  10. Darlene Says:

    Such a gorgeous library and what a super idea! It sounds so much more appealing than the modern library I work at filled with far too many romance paperbacks for my tastes (must stop judging…must stop judging…). I will most definitely be taking you up on your offer of a tour should my travels ever take me to Leeds, Alex!

  11. gaskella Says:

    If I lived in Leeds, I’d become a member for sure – I can imagine spending hours there. Lovely.

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