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.
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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.
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…