The Lit & Phil, Newcastle upon Tyne
The Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne began its days in 1793 as a ‘conversation club’ gathered around a bookcase that the local dispensary allowed them to store in its hallway. For an annual subscription fee of one guinea, one could enjoy a rich exchange of ideas – lectures, discussions and experiments – without the intrusion of prohibited subjects that included ‘religion and all politics of the day’.
These days the Society permits a more unfettered intellectual foray through its handsome collection of more than 160,000 volumes (making it purportedly the largest independent library outside of London). The library has been in its present home, a compact and stately building near the train station in Newcastle’s historic centre, since 1825, with marble busts and spiral staircases leading to a narrow mezzanine level encircling the whole space. Its mission remains to educate the people of Newcastle and surrounds, functioning primarily as a free open access library but also ‘an historic building, a refuge, a meeting place, office, theatre, lecture hall, performance space’. There’s a little booth in between the military and parliamentary sections where you can buy a £1 tea or coffee; white-haired gentlemen study newspapers while younger readers browse periodicals or work on laptops.
I’m not the first Southern Hemisphere visitor to the library of course – in 1800, John Hunter Esq., Governor of New South Wales, sent for inspection by Society members the preserved specimens of a wombat and platypus. The library has a significant vein of natural history and sciences, as you’d expect from a collection positioned at the seat of Empire, including an actual Egyptian mummy and questionable editions like Captain J. G. Stedman’s multi-volume Narrative of a five years’ expedition against the revolted negroes of Surinam in Guiana on the wild coast of South America from the year 1772, to 1777 (its website does proudly declare however that the library was host to the first meeting of the ‘Newcastle upon Tyne Society for the gradual abolition of Slavery in the British Dominions’).
It also holds an impressive collection of the ambitious metaphysical volumes of British Idealist philosophy (one shelf away from delightfully esoteric titles like The Proofs of the Truths of Spritualism), serendipitously flourishing around the time that the city was its wealthiest, when industrial coal was booming and the people’s library was in full acquisition mode. Since 1891 the collection has also included novels, a radical move that in the words of one onlooker hurt only ‘those unfortunate enough to read them’.