Leeds has a rich library heritage. The Libraries in Leeds Festival celebrates the fifty libraries that call Leeds home, including Leed’s 34 public libraries, The Leeds Library (Britain’s oldest operational subscription library) and British Library North.
The inaugural Festival has enabled the various libraries: academic, public, health and specialist to connect, with each other and the public.
I spent the first half of the year as a Writer in Residence for the Crossing the Tees Book Festival. My task was to research and visit libraries across Teesside in order to produce an illustrated history with photographer Jo Booth. Despite my focus on the Tees Valley, I couldn’t help but notice how often Leeds appeared as being significant in library history.
The Leeds Library was founded in 1768. It still operates as a subscription library but also organises tours and cultural events that are open to the public. Leeds Central Library was founded in 1871 and by the time Leeds gained city status in 1893 it already had 21 branch libraries and 37 juvenile libraries based in schools. Manchester, with a larger population at the time, had only 15 branch libraries.
The Central Library is architecturally striking and offers a wide range of services. It is rare to find public music and art libraries today, but Leeds has both alongside reference, history and Zine collections. The City is still leading the way in library development, with the abolition of fines and the ability to acquire a library card without proof of address.
The Libraries in Leeds Festival has included talks, exhibitions and backstage tours. The Festival has offered a snapshot of the variety of libraries in the City. It has enabled visitors to view rare and unique books, to understand the role of librarians and to discuss the importance of libraries in society.
I started my Festival experience on Monday morning with a backstage tour of the Royal Armouries Library. Librarian Stuart Ivinson had found a number of interesting documents to display. These included the world’s oldest fencing manual – a Fechtbuch or Fight Book, produced in early 14th century Germany. More recent archive material included a diary, magazines and stereoscopic images relating to the First World War.
Visitors on the tour included people with an interest in military history, publishing and stage combat. Neil Tattersall, who teaches stage combat, was particularly interested in a 1765 illustrated book on fencing by Angelo Domenico. I had to agree that the beautiful colour illustrations would help his students understand the historical context of the art of fencing as well as adopt authentic stances.
Other tours have taken place at the British Library at Boston Spa, Leeds Central Library, The Leeds Library, the Thackray Museum of Medicine, the Henry Moore Insitute, the University of Leeds Coin Collection and the West Yorkshire Archive Service.
On Tuesday, I visited The Leeds Library to attend Public Libraries: Past, Present and Future. Professor John Mee, author of Networks of Improvement, explained how the development of libraries had been central to the exchange of ideas and knowledge that took place in the North of England during the Industrial Revolution. Sue Williamson MBE, former Director of Libraries at Arts Council England, brought the story forward to the present.
She outlined the many opportunities that libraries offer for literacy and learning, as social spaces and cultural centres. She spoke about the concept of a Third Space that is popular in Netherlands, a place apart from home or work. She emphasised the importance libraries have played in times of crisis, including recently during the Covid pandemic. Libraries have the ability to bring communities together and respond flexibly to their needs. Sue emphasised the need for libraries to have a say in local and national planning. Whilst she was acutely aware of the financial limitations placed upon libraries, she celebrated the many ways they have developed provision. She left us wondering what more librarians could achieve with better funding and more agency.
Wednesday lunchtime saw me online, listening to various medical librarians advising on Finding Information about Health. The importance of information that is reliable, current and accessible was emphasised. NHS websites, specialist collections and local libraries were discussed. The role of local libraries in offering informative books and signposting support emphasised again the importance of our public library system as part of general social care provision.
Wednesday evening saw me at Leeds University. Our evening started in the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery. The gallery permanently displays treasures from the library’s special collections. It also offers regular exhibitions which currently include Becoming the Brontes. This exhibition brings together material from the Blavatnik Honresfield Library that has not been seen by the public for over 80 years. It explores the creative beginnings of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell Brontë – from little books produced as children to poetry manuscripts and rare first editions of their most celebrated works.
We were then ushered into a further space where key documents from the University’s Cookery Collection were on display. The collection began in 1939 when Blanche Legat Leigh donated 1,500 printed volumes and a number of manuscripts to the University Library. Since then, further collections and individual books have been added so that the collection now contains over 8,000 items. University Librarian Masud Khokhar introduced us to one of the library’s most recent acquisitions, a handwritten book giving an overview of cheese production in sixteenth century Britain.
After hearing more about the Pamflyt compiled of cheese there was a chance to view and discuss the book, and others from the cookery collection, with library staff. Our appetite whetted, we then finished with the opportunity to eat cheese and drink wine.
The Festival has also curated an online exhibition with examples of treasures that are located in archives across Leeds. The exhibition can be accessed from the Libraries in Leeds website, which details all the events taking place as part of the Festival.
The Festival continues until Saturday. Thursday focuses on family history with a talk by Dr Nick Barratt, from the BBC’s Who do You Think You Are, at the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University. On Friday, Professor Emma Smith, author of Portable Magic, speaks at The Leeds Library. Saturday sees family days at Leeds Central Library and University of Leeds.
I hope this will become an annual event. Leeds Libraries are worthy of celebration and need a platform to show what they can offer the public. whilst those who already have a professional interest in libraries appreciated the opportunity to share practice and make connections.
Photography by Debbie Rolls.