A Welcoming Philosophy

The Journal (Newcastle, England), July 5, 2005 | Go to article overview

A Welcoming Philosophy


Byline: By Howard Walker

Newcastle's Literary and Philosophical Society has been a part of the region's cultural life for more than 200 years. But as Howard Walker discovers, the institution is looking to the future.

It is hard to escape the sense of history which lies within the walls of the Literary and Philosophical Society ( or the Lit & Phil, as members call it.

The dip in the step leading up to the door on the society's building on Westgate Road is a reminder that this is a well-trodden path, while the plaque outside commemorates a double centenary celebration.

A quick look at the list of past presidents over the stairs reads like a who's who of North-East history: Robert Stephenson, Lord Armstrong and Charles Parsons all held the post.

The library's interior, with its domed ceilings and book-lined walls, is awe-inspiring but ( the members hope ( not intimidating. They view it as a hugely welcoming institution full of learning, culture and books, and one which is very much alive.

While the members, who currently number more than 1,300, instinctively shy away from the clichA, many can't avoid it when talking about the society.

"It is a real hidden gem," says one, while the phrase "oasis of calm" is used on more than one occasion. Brian Bennison, recently elected president of the Lit & Phil, tries to pin down the society's appeal and its place in the region's cultural life.

"Above all, the Lit & Phil is a society, a vibrant, active society," he enthuses.

"Yes, it is housed in a magnificent building and boasts an internationally-recognised library. But above all, it's a place where individuals from all walks of life come to meet one another. "Some come to study or write, some to learn book-binding, some just to drink coffee and chat."

A quick walk around the Lit & Phil proves the point. While there are quiet study rooms, there are no signs forbidding conversation and no librarian will give you dark looks if you strike up for a chat with a fellow member. Members frequently bring in their lunch as they peruse the latest volumes, and the coffee shop has a handy line in tempting cakes.

The society, formed by the Reverend William Turner, dates back to 1793 and the library itself to 1825, but, as well as the ordinary members, there are 134 children registered on the society's books under the family membership scheme ( and they have their own section, crammed with suitable reads. The Lit & Phil's website, registering about 45,000 hits a month, is an increasingly popular destination for people keen to know more about the society and search its vast catalogue of more than 150,000 titles, of which more than 1,300 were added last year.

As well as this vast collection of books ( and a music collection of 10,000 LPs, 6,000 CDs and more than 5,000 pieces of printed music ( the Lit & Phil also hosts a range of cultural events.

More than 50 took place last year, including talks, poetry readings and concerts.

The society has organised a comprehensive programme of special events to tie in with the Tall Ships Race this month.

And while you have to be a member to borrow books from the society, many of its events are free, or attract a low minimum donation. …

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