Alan Bennett on the Central Library

There is a romance to nostalgia. The fuzzy edges and dog-eared corners of our memories take us back to places we inhabited in our youth. Libraries are no different, especially when aged 129 years. Central Library holds many memories and not just those inside the books. In his 2011 ‘Libraries of a Lifetime’ article, author Alan Bennett remembers 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.”

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“The reference library itself proclaimed the substance of the city with its solid elbow chairs and long mahogany tables, grooved along the edge to hold a pen, and the centre of each table a massive pewter inkwell. Arched and galleried and lined from floor to ceiling with books, the reference library was grand yet unintimidating. Half the tables were filled with sixth-formers like myself, just doing their homework or studying for a scholarship; but there would also be university students home for the vacation.

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 “There were, too, the usual quota of eccentrics that haunt any reading room that is warm and handy and has somewhere to sit down. Old men would doze for hours over the magazines taken from the rack, though if they were caught nodding off an assistant would trip over from the counter and hiss, “No sleeping!”

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“With its mixture of readers and its excellent facilities (it was a first-rate library) and the knowledge that there would always be someone working there whom I knew and who would come out for coffee, I found some of the pleasure going to the reference library that, had I been less studious, I could have found in a pub.”

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“The few girls who braved this male citadel ([…]) worked harder than the boys and were seldom to be found on the landing outside where one adjourned for a smoke.”

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 “Of the boys who worked in the reference library a surprising number must have turned out to be lawyers, and I can count at least eight of my contemporaries who sat at those tables in the fifties who became judges.”

Much of what Bennett describes remains the same, the dogs still head the stairs.  The reference library is now Local and Family History and computers now sit where the inkwells once stood but we are still the same, a place for study, a home for books, a warm refuge on a cold day in the city. I can’t promise we’ll come for a coffee with you but we might let you snooze a little.

Quotes taken from ‘Libraries of a Lifetime’, The Telegraph, Review. 13th August 2011.

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