York’s first free public library was formally opened on October 5th 1893 by the Duke and Duchess of York, in the presence of the Lord Mayor and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Duke of York said;
“As a freeman of your ancient city it affords my great pleasure to accept the honour of opening your now public library. The establishment of such an institution is a valuable possession to any city, as it enables the more ardent of your students to continue the instructions imparted at your technical schools and it further promotes the love of reading and the acquisition of knowledge. I am glad that you remind me that my father laid the first stone of this building, for it adds to my satisfaction to find in the performance of my duty I am completing the work he began.”
The library was York’s contribution towards the jubilee celebrations for Queen Victoria, and 49 other cities also choose to build a library to mark the celebrations. It was situated on Clifford Street, in the building formerly occupied by the Institute of Popular Science and Literature.
In June 1894 a report noted that after a period of closure for stock-taking, on its first day of re-opening, 1,806 volumes were lent in the first day to 1,639 borrowers, which was the highest number in the library’s history. Mr Arthur Henry Furnish was the manager of the library at this time.
In November 1894, a lecture was given by the Chief Constable of York, Mr RT Lloyd, on the subject of India, to raise money for the purchase of new books for the library, after having worked there for thirteen years. In 1917 York public library was merged with the York Subscription Library, which had been founded in 1774, but which had previously charged a subscription fee for anyone who wanted to access the library.
Discussions started at this time on building a new library building, and the Corporation accepted a 13,200 pounds offer from the Carnegie Trustees to go towards paying for the new building. The building on Museum Street is still in use today, and was designed by Walter Brierley. The total cost of the building’s construction was £25,600 and was built by the firm of F Shepherd and Son on the sites of old stables.
The new library was opened on 23rd September 1927 by the Rt. Hon. the Earl of Elgin and Kincardine, who was the Chairman of the Carnegie Trust. Also present were Oscar Frederic Rowntree, the Lord Mayor, Percy John Spalding, the Town Clerk, Clarence Cecil Lucas, chairman, William Horsman, vice-chairman and Arthur Henry Furnish, the librarian in charge of the new library. A plaque marking this is still visible inside the doors of the library.
Extensions to the building were added in 1934 and then in 1938. The library shut for a period in late 2009 to allow for redevelopment and improvements, with the new library being called York Explore. The building re-opened to the public in late 2010.