The Leeds Library was founded in 1768. It is the oldest surviving example of the proprietary subscription library in the British Isles – a kind of library created, owned and run by its members. Libraries of this kind were a feature of many towns in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They appeared along with other important privately funded schemes such as cloth halls, assembly rooms and canal companies. Others examples still flourish in Belfast, Exeter, Manchester, Penzance, Plymouth and Tavistock. They were the internet of their day providing information, education and entertainment as well as bringing like-minded people together.
Why did these libraries appear? During the 18th century, books were published in larger and larger numbers and their middle class readers had more leisure time to read them. But books were also expensive and there were no free public libraries. The aim of the Leeds Library and other subscription libraries was to acquire new books that their members wished to read and to collect them perpetually so that their collections would increase in size and value. The vast majority of the books acquired were available for loan and on open shelves from which the members could select them. Printed catalogues were distributed regularly to help with book selection.
Why are subscription libraries like the Leeds Library now so rare? One reason was the appearance of other rival subscription libraries in the 19th century including those of the philosophical and literary societies and the Mechanics Institutes. These organisations offered other features such as museums, scientific investigation, public lectures and educational classes. Many subscription libraries combined with these rival organisations. Others closed when the public libraries began to appear from the mid-19th century onwards, often donating their own collection to the new public one. The large commercial circulating libraries such as those of Boots, Harrods, Mudies and W H Smith also helped to reduce the subscriptions libraries appeal.
Why has the Leeds Library survived? The main reason was the building in 1808 of premises in Commercial Street. The shops incorporated under the first-floor library provided an income in addition to the subscriptions. Also, Commercial Street was for a long time the most fashionable street in Leeds ensuring high rents from the library shops. It was also fashionable during the second half of the 19th century to belong to the Leeds Library. However, reduced income and popularity meant many years of financial difficulty during the 20th century during which important books had to be sold from time to time to keep the library open. Financial stability and renewed interest in the library since the early 1980s have allowed a period of growth in stock and members and improvements in staffing, building and conservation programmes.