The Leadhills Miners Reading Society was founded in 1741. It is the oldest subscription library in the British Isles, for the Liverpool Subscription Library, the first in England, was not founded until 1758.
Of the 23 founding members at Leadhills, all were miners except the minister and the schoolmaster. Prospective members were required to submit written applications to the 'Preses' and, if voted into the Society, had to pay an entrance fee of 3/- (15p). The annual subscription was 2/- (10p), no small sum when yearly earnings might be no more than £20.
Reprints exist of the original rules of 1741 and make interesting reading. Members met once a month to exchange books. There were no fewer than six inspectors to examine the returned books for dirt and damage. (These inspectors were also empowered to enter a members house at any time to examine Library Books).
The early books were mainly religious in character with history claiming the second largest share. The considerable sums, noted in the minute books spent on repairs and rebinding show that the books were really read, and were not merely what would now be called status symbols.
By 1821 the library had 1500 books, and the 'Catalogue of Books in the Leadhills Library' printed in 1904 lists no less than 3805 volumes. Many novels are by now kept including those of Scott, Homer, Carlyle, Johnson, Ruskin and Swift. A large miscellaneous category included the title 'The Truth about Drink' and it is not without significance that John Hope, the Victorian reformer began his temperance campaign in the village.
So successful was the pioneer library at Leadhills, that two neighbouring mining villages also decided to form Reading Societies, Wanlockhead in 1756 and Westerkirk in 1792. These three libraries were inaugurated many years before any of the Mechanics Institutes.
By the late 1930's the lead mines in the village had closed, the population had declined and the membership of the Reading Society with it. It was difficult to maintain a viable library service. In 1940 the Lanarkshire County Library took over the building as a part time centre. This provided a service in keeping with the traditions of the Reading Society. However by the 1960's the Library Sub-Committee in Hamilton considered the arrangement was no longer satisfactory to them and the library was closed in 1965 when a mobile service was introduced.
The people of Leadhills knew that they had something whose national importance transcended the county council economics, and a village committee began a long fight to restore the library.
On the 3rd June, 1972, the Miners Library was reopened by Professor Beatty of the National Library and Edinburgh University. In his address he paid tribute to the miners who had created the Library - those eighteenth century workmen whose interest created an institution of which the village is justly proud.
Today the Library contains various relics of the past life in the village and the mines, as well as the book collection. There are exhibits on the local geology as well as maps,photographs and other items from the villages mining past.