The Business of Borrowing: 250 years of The Leeds Library

by Lizzy Holling

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Camouflaged above a bank, it is easy to overlook The Leeds Library.

Book buying has increased, but what about borrowing? The New Year brought reasons to celebrate within the publishing industry, as The Bookseller reported the UK print market has grown for the fourth consecutive year. The fate of many libraries remains a serious concern, yet one library is growing in the face of gloomy prophecies. Public libraries have experienced a decline in both services and users, but libraries that require membership have seen numbers rise: Leeds and Bromley House Library have seen numbers double in the past decade. So what is the draw of the subscription library?

Last year marked the 250th birthday of The Leeds Library; the oldest surviving subscription library of its kind in the UK. Subscription libraries became popular in the late 18th century when books were expensive, university libraries scarce and public libraries non-existent. A system of using paid membership to grant borrowing rights has been in place since the library opened in 1768.

‘It’s not a museum, it’s a library,’ says librarian Jane Riley as we enter a room packed with their greatest treasures. She explains that the library once held many more first editions, including those of the Brontës, but they wore out and were replaced years ago. This may sound distressing, but is a result of the policy that no limits are ever placed on what members can view within the library.

The first members were merchants, so Leeds’s collections are particularly rich in in travel literature. One wonderful example is a 1483 edition of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Today Mandeville is known for faking his travels and concealing his true identity, but The Travels became famous in the Middle Ages as a reference text. Another area of acquisition was natural history, and one of 100 first edition copies of On the Origin of Species remains part of the collection. Throughout the years all texts have been retained (unless worn out) and remain accessible to all members today.

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Membership has always been open to everyone but harboured an elitism that has gradually decreased since the 19th century. Today, the library aims to throw off stuffiness and reinforce a community spirit, with an eye to broadening its appeal. The library is free to visitors and researchers, and members often host light-hearted events. With membership the price of a Netflix subscription, the demographic is also evolving to embrace the young.

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Although some archival material is being digitised for the British Library, you won’t find many of Leeds’s books on the internet. This is bittersweet, considering the internet’s importance in research today, but affirms their desire to seek a balance between preserving the printed word and limiting digitisation to allow the library to offer a unique research experience to its growing members. The strength of an eighteenth-century institution reinvented for the present day lies, not only with its books, but with members’ desire for cultural exchange and a connection to history.

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