The Leeds Library was established in 1768 to buy items of interest to its current members and to collect those items for the benefit of future members. Today, it adds about a 1,500 new items each year mostly recommended by members and has a total collection of more than 150,000 books, periodicals, audio-cassettes, CDs and DVDs. The collection reflects the varying tastes of the library members over more than two centuries. And, throughout its history, the library has allowed non-members research access to this collection too
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. Foreign language film on DVD has been introduced in recent times in revival of this traditional collecting area.
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 where it is intended to fill any significant gaps.
Important works of reference have been acquired from the library 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 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.
The Thoresby Society is the historical society of Leeds and district and was founded in 1889. In 2015 their library moved to the Leeds Library premises. Their collection is built up of material concerned with the history of Leeds and has been amassed over the last 100 years. For details on this collection and how to access it please see their website.