Culture and Change: Celebrating our library buildings past, present and future

Bradford’s first library opened in Tyrrel Street in 1872.  The first libraries were grand demonstrations of learning. When the Bradford library moved to Darley Street in 1878, The Bradford Observer boasted that the library consisted of ‘a news room, lending library, reference library, separate reading rooms for men and women, an art gallery and museum, and several branch libraries.’  

Library history was made in 1904 with the opening of Keighley Library, the first town in England to receive a grant from Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. He pledged to provide £10,000 towards the cost of the new library. Carnegie went on to give funds to hundreds of others across the country: ‘Whatever agencies for good may rise or fall in the future, it seems certain that the Free Library is destined to stand and become a never-ceasing foundation of good to all the inhabitants.’

In the same year, Ilkley UDC applied to Carnegie for a grant to build a library and was given £3,000. Ilkley Library opened in 1907, constructed of local stone adorned with carved figures representing literature and science.

Manningham Library, also part-funded by Carnegie, was the first library in Bradford to have a separate room for children. At its opening in 1910, Manningham was the busiest of Bradford’s branch libraries. Carved medallions are inscribed with the names of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth. In 1913, Great Horton Library opened, Bradford’s first library designed for open access with a 360-degree view counter.

There are close links between some library origins and another great champion of learning, mechanics institutes. The library in Bingley opened in 1892 on Main Street in the cathedral-style of architecture. This had been a Mechanics Institute since 1864. Bingley Library is famed for the fact that best-selling author John Braine (Room at the Top) was a librarian there between 1940 and 1951. Bingley is clearly recognisable in this novel and libraries feature in many of his novels. The old Bingley Library became inadequate for the needs of this industrial town so the redevelopment of the town centre was the opportunity to include a new library in 1973 and in 2009 it moved to a new facility in the same precinct which was rebuilt. 

Denholme Library, made of local stone, is in a former Mechanics’ Institute built in 1882. Denholme vies with Queensbury for being the highest library in West Yorkshire. Queensbury library also shared a building with the old Mechanics Institute, now part of the impressive Victoria Hall. Opened in 1891 Queensbury library, set on the high ground between Bradford and Halifax, reflects the industrial and civic heritage of Yorkshire’s remote townships.

The oldest library building in the district in operation today is Addingham. This library was built in 1669 as a village school and a jail before becoming a library. Clayton Library is also located in an old schoolhouse building built in 1819.

Another conversion was Wibsey Library, originally a Methodist Chapel near Fair Road where the Wibsey horse fairs were held. This was the first post-war building to be adapted for library purposes, opening in 1951. Soon after, Allerton Library was created from converted cottages.

By the 1950s and 1960s, ‘modernisation’ was the word of the day. In 1958, a new library was built at Wyke. Wyke had been served since 1904 by a library first housed in a church school and later in a room in the baths premises. In 2013 the library service was transferred to new community premises on the Appleton Academy site. In 1964, a new purpose built library opened in Eccleshill with an open aspect on its unusual triangular site. In 1969 a library service was provided in the new community centre in Thornton.

Meanwhile, in the City Centre, a new central Library was urgently needed. The Darley Street library was inadequate and overcrowded. Again Bradford was at the forefront of innovation. In 1967 the iconic eight story building was opened by H.R.H. Princess Alexandra. It was the first major post-war central library to be built in the UK.

In 2013 the City library service moved to modern central premises overlooking City Park whilst Local Studies remained in the Princes Way Location with Bradford Archives, together responsible for preserving, maintaining and continuing to collect the history of Bradford District in vast basement stacks.

The 1970s was a time of great change in local government. West Riding branches joining Bradford District included Baildon, Burley and Menston in 1974. In 1975, Holme Wood, another purpose built library opened to the public.  In 1972 Wrose library opened in converted shop premises.

In Shipley, with its strategic importance on transport routes, the new purpose built library was built in 1985 as part of the new shopping complex. This flagship library is in local honey-coloured stone and has meeting rooms much used by the local community.

Library services have responded to local opportunities and initiatives. St Augustine’s library, opened in 1987, is in a mixed use community centre within the church. Heaton Hub and Thornbury Library also operate from church and community centres. In 1988, Laisterdyke library started in the local community centre and Wilsden provides services in partnership with the village hall.  Silsden Library shares premises with Silsden Town Hall. In Idle, library services are provided from the Wright Watson Enterprise Centre. Bolling Hall Library operates from within the museum.  

The story of Bradford Library Service is more than a history of buildings but about the ways in which libraries have adapted, past and present, and will continue to adapt for the future.  The current focus is on making library buildings flexible and adaptable so they can host a variety of community activities and events as well as partner services providing complementary services, making them hubs in their communities.  A recent funding award from Arts Council England means that more of our libraries will have moveable shelving and meeting rooms installed, fit for the future.