About us

A 21st-century library
The Leeds Library is an educational charity devoted to the preservation and development of its historic collection and building and to making them available for the benefit of people of Leeds and beyond. It was founded in 1768 as a general lending library when such libraries were seen as novel, exciting and even dangerous - not least during the tense years of the French Revolution. As it fast approaches its 250th anniversary, it still maintains the traditions of the 18th-century subscription library - personal service, easy access to the collection and accumulation for the future. Libraries have played a role in local and national life that has too often been underestimated. At a time when too many libraries are being closed, the Leeds Library is seeking to inspire new generations of readers and library users.

The Leeds Library was established to buy items of interest to its current members and to collect those items for the benefit of future members and its collection reflects the varying tastes of the library’s members over more than two centuries. Some areas of acquisition have always been popular such as foreign travel, history, literature and British topography. The early popularity of others has waned such as natural history, science and theology. All subjects have been retained. The foreign language material acquired in large quantities from 1778 until the 1930s is also still present.

There are individual items and collections of particular importance. These include long runs of periodicals, Victorian and Edwardian novels and children's books and collections of Civil War pamphlets and Reformation Tracts. Recently, the large quantity of crime fiction contained in the main fiction sequence has been collected into its own special collection.

Important works of reference have been acquired from the library’s opening but many of these were neglected in favour of more popular items in the latter half of the 20th century due to a shortage of funds. In recent, more prosperous times, sets such as the Victoria County History, Loeb Classical Library and Pevsner Buildings of England have been brought up to date. Other new additions, including the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, have also been made.

Generally the Leeds Library has acquired only printed items but a unique collection of manuscript pedigrees, compiled by the Leeds antiquary, Thomas Wilson, was given to the library in 1774 by the compiler’s son, Joseph Wilson. There are two volumes devoted to the families of the West Riding of Yorkshire and one each to the East and North Ridings and to Lancashire. In return for the gift, the library gave Joseph Wilson free membership for life. The Leeds Library also possesses a copy of Ralph Thoresby’s history of Leeds – Ducatus Leodiensis – published in London in 1715 and annotated by John Lucas, the same Thomas Wilson and George Bayley.

An archive of documents relating to the history of the Leeds Library is maintained. These include printed catalogues of the collection, minute books, subscription ledgers, membership registers, building plans, correspondence and accounting records some of which date back to the very early days of the library. From the late 19th century, records of borrowing also survive.

An innovation of the 18th-century subscription libraries was the printed catalogue providing lists of whole collections, recent additions, listings by author and listings by subject. Members could take them home, choose their books and perhaps send a servant, partner or child to collect them. The Leeds Library produced such catalogues from 1768 until the 1930s by which time the main library catalogue had become a card index - a great innovation of the first early-20th century but now only brosable in the library itself. Since 1998, the library has been recataloguing its collection (of some 140,000 items), and has so far created about 50,000 entries. The completion of this catalogue is a priority. Not only does it let members see what the library holds, it also, via our website, lets the outside world know what we have too! If you wish to consult the catalogue please click here: online catalogue .
Further reading
Beckwith, Frank - The Leeds Library 1768-1968, 2nd edition, Leeds: Leeds University Press, 1994
Forster, Geoffrey and Alan Bell - Subscription libraries and their members, in The Cambridge history of libraries in Great Britain and Ireland, v 3, 1850-2000, edited by Alistair Black & Peter Hoare, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006
Forster, Geoffrey, Alice Hamilton, Peter Hoare & Elaine Robinson - A very good public library: early years of the Leeds Library, History of the book trade in the north, 82, Newcastle upon Tyne: Allenholme Press, 2001

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