Rev. Dr. Priestley in the Library with the lead type

“Si j’etais bien en fonds, j’achèterais une presse !” – French Revolutionary Camille Desmoulins

The role of the printing press as transformational communication technology is a commonplace so powerful that it is frequently invoked as a parallel to the Internet.

We think of it in terms of the spread of ideas, of bibles hitherto copied laboriously by monks now churned out for the newly literate middle classes of the Reformation; of cheap-as-chips chapbooks spreading gossip and popular culture in Pepys’ London; and of the great Enlightenment figures, such as Joseph Priestley and Tom Paine, able to disseminate their works of science and politics halfway across the world in a matter of months.

But listening to a lunchtime talk by Geoffrey Forster of the Leeds Library I was struck by another way of thinking about the press, as a tool for group formation and organisation.

Forster is the 18th Leeds Librarian, a role dating back to 1768 when a group of 105 founders, of whom Priestley was the fourth, came together to establish a private subscription library. Each paid a guinea to join, a substantial sum in those days, but books were dear: a copy of Priestley’s 700-page The History and Present State of Electricity could cost as much.

The founding subscribers – Nonconformists, Anglicans, one Roman Catholic, four 13 of them women joining in their own right – modelled their library on that at Liverpool, established 10 years earlier, and were part of a movement that saw subscription libraries across the country.

They had responded to an advertisement in the Leeds Mercury, a newspaper re-established in the city only the previous year, and the founding 105 were named in a prospectus listing the first titles that the library would acquire.

They set out to accumulate an ever-growing catalogue, buying regularly from a suggestions book kept by Priestley, their secretary. By 1772 they had 1200 volumes at the Kirkgate library. 243 year later there are 140,000 books housed in a purpose-built Victorian building on Commercial Street, above shops whose rents help to finance the library to this day.

In The Invention of Air, and latterly Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson tells the story of Priestley’s discovery of oxygen, after a chance visit to Jakes and Nell’s Brewery on Leeds’ Meadow Lane. Priestley chewed over his discoveries with his friend Ben Franklin, who according to Forster almost certainly visited the Kirkgate building, now a branch of Superdrug. Johnson talks about the importance of leisure-time and literacy in enabling 18th Century geeks like Priestley to develop their ideas, and coffee shops as venues to share them.

To this now I think it’s worth adding Forster’s theory, that the printing press enabled for the first time large-scale associations like the Leeds Library to function.

In a city without a press, someone proposing to start a library had first to attract the interest of fellow citizens. He or she might write letters, laboriously by hand, requesting their attendance at a public meeting. Supposing they could be gathered together, those people would need prospectuses, membership cards, notices and minutes of annual meetings, all things impractical to write out repeatedly in long-hand.

Through its natural associations with booksellers, newspapers and printers, the Leeds Library had ready access to technology to automate all these dull but necessary functions. The press was not just a means to spread ideas, it was an organisation tool through which groups of people could make stuff happen together.

In the medium of ink on paper, Joseph Priestley and his fellow citizens were pioneer social networkers.

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