The Old Library

The feeling of excitement when you are somewhere you’re not supposed to be is one of those thrilling hangovers from childhood that probably never leaves you — like riding a bike with your eyes closed or snow days.

My friend and I experienced these nostalgic emotions when we visited the imposing derelict library and swimming baths on York Road. It’s not a building that is easy to miss, and nor should it be. The library was built in 1904 at the brave new dawn of a new century and in its first year issued over 100,000 thousand books.

But by the mid-1980’s, the Thatcher government closed libraries up and down the country as part of a general theme of public service cutbacks. The last book was stamped in 1985 before the York Road library closed its doors for good.

The library was afforded Grade 2 listing status in 1987, but as so often with listed buildings that are abandoned, this became both a blessing and a curse.

From the outside, she is still a grand old girl, caged in by a flimsy and wholly inadequate fence. Commuters whizz in their cars and the world keeps turning, but the library’s faded Victorian charm stays static and largely intact.

What will we find in there? Teenage tearaways up to mischief? A rare first edition hidden away in a drawer?

The only signs of life were the pigeons, and with much of the roof tiles long stolen away, the place makes for a handy home for the feathered creatures with plenty of exits into the open air.

Walking around the crumbling library you contemplate the personal histories of the place — how many lives were changed by the books from here? Were there any furtive glances over the non-fiction section which led to a lifelong relationship?

There is beauty in the decay, and the familiar civic symbol of Leodsian pride — the Owl —makes an appearance in the form of a really quite brilliant mosaic. It’s a shame to see it so neglected.

Leeds’ recent history has been of regeneration. Out of the ashes of old buildings came contemporary art spaces such The Tetley or Canal Mills, but for York Road Library the process has been painfully slow.

The LS9forever blog ( has a post from five years ago detailing the efforts of the Community Organisation for Viable Environments & Neighbourhoods (COVEN) group in trying to safeguard the building from demolition.

The landlord had repeatedly refused to stump up the cash for any refurbishments so it was left to members of the community to rally together and pressure local councillors to force the landlord to undertake the badly needed work.

This was all half a decade ago, and time cannot stand still for the York Road Library forever. 2017 brought with it a planning application from The Rushbond group who hope to turn the old library into a gym.  Work has begun and you can follow the renovation of the building at They’ve are clearly going to painstaking lengths to restore some of the Victorian features, and it will be fascinating to see the project progress.

Movement at last.