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Leadhills Miners’ Library

Library of the Week : 28th February : This week we feature the amazing Leadhills Miners’ Library in South Lanarkshire, Scotland. John Crawford, Chair of the Leadhills Heritage Trust shares with us this brilliant piece about the library, its history and the incredible collections available in Britain’s oldest subscription library. Thank you very much to Leadhills Miners’ Library for taking part!

Leadhills Miners’ Library is the principal collection of the Leadhills Heritage Trust, which manages the library. The library was founded in 1741 as the Leadhills Reading Society and is both the first and earliest subscription library to be founded in Britain as well as  the world’s first library for working people. Its stock peaked at around 4000 volumes in the early 20th century, and today its 2500 surviving volumes represent a history of working class reading from the early 18th century until the 1930s. The collection demonstrates the development of working class reading: initially focusing on religion, before expanding to cover secular non–fiction (including history, voyages and travel, and biography) and then fiction.

It includes 600 volumes purchased with grants from the Ferguson Bequest Fund between about 1870 and 1930, and is the largest surviving collection of its kind. The collection also includes local imprints, such as that of John Wilson of Kilmarnock, Robert Burns’ first publisher. The library functioned as a lending library until the 1960s and is now a closed reference and research collection.

The library is closely linked to the early lifelong learning ideology of mutual improvement and was the first library in Europe to make this connection, following the development of the idea in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin in 1731. It therefore played a key role in the development of information ideology in Europe. The principal users of the library were lead miners, whose favourable working conditions and high levels of literacy gave them time to read. The foundation of the library was linked to a programme of reforms in the village, originated by the mine manager and Jacobite intellectual, James Stirling of Garden (1692-1770).

The Leadhills Library Banner (c1820)

The Library’s collections also include the earliest library banner in Britain (c 1820), which featured on the Antiques Roadshow in June 2017, and the largest collection of Bargain Books in Scotland. These record the short term contracts made between the mine managers and teams of miners. The collection has recently been digitised. The Library also possesses the only known example of a library pulpit where the library president (preses) sat while presiding over the monthly loan and return meetings. Some examples of printed catalogues are also held, including the last major catalogue of the library collection itself, listing 3800 volumes and printed in 1904. A modern catalogue was compiled in the 1980s and has formed the basis for the records now available through Library Hub Discover.

Leadhills also holds a collection of library artefacts, including ballot boxes for voting on accepting new members, membership certificates and printing plates for printing off membership certificates, and a printing plate for printing copies of the Library bookplate.

The Library had its own building prior to 1791 but its location is not known. The current building was erected in 1791 and is one of the oldest public library buildings in Scotland. It is essentially a miners’ cottage without internal divisions and demonstrates the influence of domestic architecture on library design. It is shelved on three sides with the fourth, north-facing, long wall providing fenestration and a door. It is mentioned in the Old Statistical Account.

The Library is open to the public on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, from Easter until the end of September, 2-5 pm. Access at other times by appointment. Tours of the library and village are available for groups on request. In the mutual improvement tradition the Library offers a monthly programme of lectures during the winter months and also occasional special lectures. Local community groups also meet in the Library.

You can also find out more on the new library website:

John Crawford – Chair, Leadhills Heritage Trust

All images are copyright of the Leadhills Miners’ Library. 

You can explore the library’s collections on Discover and find further contact details on their Discover information page. 

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