If you’ve read the Harry Potter books, or seen the films, you can probably picture the following sort of scene.
You are walking down a perfectly normal 21st century city centre shopping street, and then you disappear in seconds through a door which appears out of nowhere and enter a Dickensian other-worldly universe. No one follows you because the doorway you have entered is invisible to passers-by. Completely invisible. If you ask anyone if they’ve ever seen the door, the answer will invariably be a resounding ‘no’.
It happened to me this week. Right in the middle of Leeds. Only a couple of hundred yards or so along from the commercial unit where the Woolgather show is on. My invisible door appeared halfway down Commercial Street, and the Dickensian other-world I found myself in is The Leeds Library, the oldest private subscription library in the UK.
The Library is naturally a bibliophile’s delight. Bookshelves climb up to the heavens with galleries encircling the upper levels. Dusty leather tomes fill the spaces up high as far as the eye can see, but close to hand the view is interrupted by a desktop computer and a stack of DVDs. This 1768 library is very much part of the here and now.
The interior is awe-inspiring. The library, founded in the late 18th century, moved into the purpose built premises in the early 19th century. Showing great foresight, the members constructed the building with ground floor commercial units to provide income, and so the parade of shops at street level ‘conceals’ the entrance like a magician’s sleight of hand.
I had been aware of the library for a while, but had never managed to quite puzzle out where it was until I visited the other day. Now I wish I’d made the effort to visit years ago. It’s a wonderful institution, another Leeds hidden gem, a fragmentary yet entirely real connection between the city of today and that of 200 years ago. Membership is open to all, and visits to the Library can be made upon appointment. There is currently a very interesting bible exhibition showing (see details opposite), which evidences the depth of the library’s collection. It’s all very much worth the visit.