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Leeds Libraries

Library of the Week: 13th February : Leeds Libraries! Find out more about their amazing Special Collections, events and exhibitions as well as the history of the beautiful Grade II* listed Central Library. Thank you to Rhian Isaac and the team at Leeds Libraries for writing this week’s brilliant post.


The Reading Room in the Free Public Library

The Municipal Buildings, housing the library and other civic departments, opened in 1884 after the Leeds based Scottish architect George Corson won a competition to design the new site. The Grade II* listed building is worth visiting as an attraction in its own right, especially if you climb the stairs to the Local Studies and Research department and admire the stained glass windows and marble pillars on the way. Alan Bennett in his 2011 Libraries of a Lifetime article, describes his time spent studying at Leeds Central Library, “I used to do my homework in the Leeds Central Library in the Headrow. It’s a High Victorian building done throughout in polished Burmantofts brick, extravagantly tiled, the staircases of polished marble topped with brass rails, and carved at the head of each stair a slavering dog looking as if it’s trying to stop itself sliding backwards down the banister.” The original tiled Reading Room, according to a review by The Yorkshiremen, was so magnificent, they feared that “people will be continually gazing up at it, instead of quietly reading the magazines and the newspapers!”

Local Studies and Research Department

Over the years the Municipal Buildings have been home to several different services, such as the City Museum and Police department, but now the Central Library happily encompasses all four floors. It contains specialist departments including one of the country’s largest public Art libraries, a Music library, a Business & Intellectual Property Centre (BIPC) and the Local Studies and Research library. There is also a digital media studio, an artist workshop space and Room 700, an exhibition and event venue. We are always exploring how we can improve and expand our offer and are looking forward to significant refurbishment thanks to the Libraries Improvement Fund.

Illuminated Book of Hours C.1480


Special Collections: There are over 17 thousand items in our special collections, comprising rare books, manuscripts, prints, maps, photographs and ephemera, that date from the 15th century.

Highlights include:

Gascoigne Collection of Military History

There are over 3,000 items in the collection of books, pamphlets and periodicals, the majority covering the subjects of military and naval history. The collection includes army and navy lists from the early nineteenth century and histories of regiments and is a rich source for researchers of military history.

Gott Bequest of Early English Gardening Books

The Gott Bequest is a collection of around 600 botanical and horticultural books and periodicals. Items include herbals, books on garden design and many fine examples of hand coloured botanical illustrations, many published in the 16th,17th and 18th centuries. In volume 10 of ‘The Northern Gardener’ published in 1956, an article by Kenneth Lemmon, the Honorary Editor, says of the Gott Collection in Leeds Central Library, ‘I cannot think of another such collection outside the R.H.S. Lindley Library or the British Museum and the older universities.’

Leeds Pottery Drawing and Pattern Books

The Design, Drawing & Pattern Books are a set of volumes containing illustrations of Leeds Pottery products. They were compiled over a period from c.1781 to c.1819 for production and sales purposes. The beautiful illustrations depict the designs for the pottery and some are hand drawn in pen and ink; others are hand painted with watercolours.

Wing Collection of English Civil War Tracts

This collection comprises over 800 items printed between 1640 and 1700, mostly tracts documenting the events, politics, religious debates and social life throughout the turbulent period of the English Civil Wars.

Local History

Central Library provides a comprehensive collection of material on all aspects of Leeds, together with a wide range of Yorkshire and family history material. The collection of over 180,000 items includes books, local newspaper archives, journals, directories, maps, photographs, electoral registers, playbills and parish records.

Leodis Archive

Leodis contains over 68,000 images of Leeds. This photographic archive brings together collections held by Leeds Libraries as well as collections from other heritage organisations in the city.

Leeds Playbills

Our playbills collection of theatre and circus bills ranges from 1781 to the 1990’s. These cover theatres such as the City Varieties and The Grand Theatre. Circus bills include performances by Pablo Fanque’s Equestrian artists, Manders’ Royal Menagerie and Sanger’s Zoological Hippodrome and Mammoth Circus. Over 5,000 of these playbills can be viewed online.

Specialist departments

Our specialist departments contain a wide range of books, journals and newspapers covering all subjects. The Art Library collections feature many areas of art, including architecture, crafts, drawing, painting, fashion and photography. 25,000 of these books can be borrowed and many more are available for reference. The Music Library holds collections of Victorian song sheets and 18th century music scores, as well as contemporary sheet music and orchestral sets covering most genres.

Encouraging engagement with our collections

Fatima Manji at the launch of Breaking the News exhibition

As a public library we aim to make our collections as accessible as possible and engage audiences from different communities. We achieve this through a vibrant cultural programme inspired by our collections that includes exhibitions, workshops, talks and performances.

King Charles III visit to Rebellion to Romance exhibition

We enhance the experiences of families attending events by introducing children to rare books that feature fairy tales or pirates and we commission artists to respond to our collections in new and exciting ways. Our heritage building offers the perfect backdrop to author events and film screenings that are accompanied by displays of relevant historic material. As part of the Living Knowledge Network we curate displays that tie in with the British Library’s major shows and collaborate with partners, such as the Jamaica Society, to host exhibitions that showcase important but previously untold local stories.

Upcoming projects include work to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Leeds born civil engineer John Smeaton, a contemporary music heritage collecting project, and an LKN exhibition that will explore the story of Fantasy’s development from the earliest works up to the present day.


Interior of Leeds Central Library

You can read more about our collections on the Secret Library Leeds blog and follow us on social media @leedslibraries.

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

Rhian Isaac – Special Collections, Leeds Libraries

All images copyright of Leeds Libraries reproduced with kind permission of the copyright holder.

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