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date: 24 March 2023

Circulating Libraries

The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature

Edward Jacobs

Circulating Libraries 

Circulating libraries were commercial enterprises that rented books to patrons, typically for an annual or quarterly fee. Developing out of informal arrangements for renting books by a handful of booksellers during the later seventeenth century, these businesses flourished from the 1740s (when the term “circulating library” and trade practices became standard) into the mid-twentieth century. Circulating libraries played a major role in creating the modern popular culture of reading, in part by making books affordable to a wider spectrum of the public, but more importantly by increasing the number of books any single reader could afford to read. Between the 1740s and 1840s circulating libraries also contributed significantly to the production of books, with proprietors of the largest libraries consistently ranking among the most prolific publishers of their day, especially when it came to novels.

Origins and Development to the 1840s

In the 1660s the bookseller Francis Kirkman advertised that he rented books, as did one Widow Page in 1674. However, the earliest evidence of businesses called “circulating libraries” and centered on book rental dates from 1725, when Allan Ramsay opened Ramsay's Circulating Library in Edinburgh; sometime in the 1730s, Thomas Wright opened shop in London. Surviving trade documents indicate that by the 1750s there were at least nine circulating libraries in London, although here as elsewhere records surely underestimate actual numbers. By 1780 there were at least nineteen and by 1800 at least twenty-six libraries in London, a number that remained fairly steady until the 1820s, after which the number of independent libraries declined, as large franchise libraries expanded.

Many libraries, especially in London, were large and long-lived affairs, and the number of books they offered readers steadily increased throughout the period. According to Paul Kaufman's summary (1967) of the twenty-two extant catalogs from eighteenth-century England, the libraries of William Bathoe (founded c.1751, succeeding to Thomas Wright; issued a catalog in 1757), Thomas Lowndes (founded c.1751; catalog in 1766), and John and Francis Noble (founded c.1739; catalog in 1767) all offered patrons stocks of around 5,000 titles. Roughly twenty years later John Bell (founded c.1769, succeeding to Bathoe; catalog in 1778) and Thomas Hookham (founded in 1764; catalog in 1794) stocked around 8,000 titles. By the end of the century, William Lane's Minerva Press and Circulating Library (founded in 1770; catalogs 1796–1802) offered over 20,000 titles. Lane's enterprise is by far the single most significant circulating library of the period 1740–1840, in part because he offered to franchise provincial circulating libraries, providing them with ready-made stock, but also because of his ingenuity in advertising and in cultivating generic reading. Many of the large London libraries survived well into the nineteenth century, with the Minerva Library lasting until 1848, although after the 1820s it evidently waned in scope.

In England outside of London, circulating libraries developed more slowly, except in major spa towns such as Bath, where Lewis Bull was in business by 1731. However, during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, provincial libraries developed rapidly, with the Monthly Magazine estimating their number at 1,000 by 1800. Judging by the fourteen surviving catalogs for libraries outside of London, provincial libraries were generally much smaller than those in London, with an average of 3,123 titles. Significantly, among these, the nine libraries situated in the relatively large cities of Hereford, Leicester, Newcastle, Bath, and Birmingham averaged 4,619 titles, while those in the relatively small towns of Darlington, Derby, Newton Abbey, and Whitehaven averaged only 430 titles. The earliest of these catalogs date from 1770, and the average date is 1793, again suggesting that English circulating libraries developed much later outside of London than in it. No significant evidence survives about how much London libraries contributed to the development of provincial ones through specific relations such as the franchising that Lane offered. However, the very existence of The Use of Circulating Libraries Considered, a 1797 how-to manual for proprietors printed in London (reproduced in Varma, 1972), suggests that at the end of the eighteenth century the proprietors of London circulating libraries were seeking to disseminate the institution.

The Use of Circulating Libraries Considered warns that “not one Circulating Library in twenty” could make a profit unless it combined book rental with some other business, especially in “country towns,” so many smaller libraries were hybrid enterprises. Stationery and the sale of books and newspapers were the most common adjuncts, but libraries also frequently combined with trade in hats, medicines, teas, perfumes, and tobacco, as well as with barbering. It is unclear whether it was more common to add a circulating library to a preexisting shop or to found a circulating library as a hybrid business, but practicality would suggest the former happened more often. In keeping with the advice of The Use of Circulating Libraries Considered, hybrid libraries seem to have been more common in “country towns.” However, especially in the nineteenth century, such libraries also proliferated in London, renting books (especially popular fiction) for around a penny per volume to lower-class readers unable to afford the annual fees at large libraries such as Lane's or Hookham’s, which by the 1814 had risen to two guineas (504 pence). In 1838 the Journal of the Statistical Society of London identified thirty-eight such penny-per-volume, hybrid libraries in three Westminster parishes, with modest stocks of just over two hundred volumes, on average.

Evidence about circulating libraries in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales is relatively sparse, especially outside of major population centers. However, the documents that have survived suggest that the development of circulating libraries in these nations followed a roughly similar path to that in England: the institution emerged in major metropolitan areas around the middle of the eighteenth century and afterwards spread to more provincial locales, where libraries were typically much smaller affairs.

Fees and Clientele

The vast majority of circulating libraries rented books for an annual or quarterly fee, a system that notably simplified accounts. Market forces kept fees relatively standard among the large metropolitan libraries of any particular period. Between the 1730s and 1842 the standard annual fee generally amounted to about double the purchase price of a normal three-volume novel of the time, although in real terms it rose from a low of half a guinea (ten shillings and six pence) in the 1750s to two guineas (forty-two shillings) by 1814. When Mudie's Select Library opened in 1842, it undercut other libraries with a fee of only one guinea, which amounted to half rather than double the purchase price of a three-volume novel, but only because Mudie used his clout with publishers to maintain the cost of a “triple-decker” novel at a whopping thirty-one shillings and six pence. After 1894 typical fees fell to half a guinea, which initially was again about double the purchase price of a novel but became more relatively expensive as book prices fell.

Only middle- and upper-class readers could reasonably afford circulating library fees before the twentieth century. Especially during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries small cut-rate libraries like those described by the London Statistical Society (later renamed the Royal Statistical Society) to some extent made books affordable to a wider spectrum of the public. But overall, circulating libraries increased the number of books relatively well-off readers could afford to read far more than they increased the number of people who could afford to read books.

By allowing middle-class readers to consume hundreds of books for the price of buying two books, circulating libraries were key to the creation of a modern popular culture of reading, in which reading new books became a regular form of leisure activity. Circulating libraries in turn fostered more “casual” modes of reading. When people could afford to buy only a few books, they tended to buy books that could be reread with profit and to read those in a meditative mode akin to study of the Bible. By contrast, when people could afford to rent hundreds of books in the same year, they did not have to seek “new” pleasure in familiar words, ideas, and characters, but could instead take pleasure in the raw novelty of what they were reading (Erickson 1996; Jacobs 2003).

Circulating libraries also augmented the occasions books offered for social interaction by, for instance, allowing the public reading of books within families to become a regular feature of domestic sociability. Circulating libraries early gained a reputation for being patronized mainly by middle-class women and servants. However, the (admittedly sparse) evidence about clientele suggests that although women and relatively lower-class readers patronized circulating libraries disproportionately (given their lower literacy rates), both groups were numerical minorities among the patrons of circulating libraries, especially of large metropolitan ones.

Rental Condition and Library Organization

Subscription fees did not give patrons unlimited access to the books in circulating libraries. As the conditions set forth in extant catalogs indicate, the widespread policy was to restrict patrons to two books at a time, only one of which could be a new book. Many libraries did not circulate large and expensive folio volumes, asking patrons to read them in the library. New books had to be returned within two to six days; other books could be kept for a month. Fines were charged for late returns. From the 1790s many libraries introduced a class system of fees, whereby those paying a higher rate had exclusive access to new books and/or could take out more books at a time. Generally, the limit was six, but Lane's 1798 catalog specifies eighteen rentals at a time for three guineas (sixty-three shillings). For an extra shilling per quarter, some libraries would deliver books to patrons living within a mile or so of the library. Some larger metropolitan libraries offered to ship books to readers outside of London, who were entitled to a greater number of books at a time for the normal fee but had to pay shipping costs.

Catalogs were offered to the general public for a price between six pence and one shilling; some libraries refunded that money to those who subsequently joined the library. In a mild form of extortion, patrons were instructed to order books by catalog number rather than title. And, as the catalog of William Bathoe's library puts it, in order “to prevent Disappointments,” a patron “wanting TWO BOOKS is always to send a List of TEN, and wanting One only, half that number.”

The catalogs of most circulating libraries classified books first by printed format (which corresponded to size and status: folios were large “coffee-table books,” while duodecimos were small “pocket-sized” books), then by genre, and within genre by alphabetized short title. This organizational strategy encouraged customers to perceive and choose books as members of genres, since it presented them with ready-made lists of books of the same size and hence “status” that brought similar generic conventions to bear on similar topics. For instance, any patron of Bathoe's library wanting to rent Love in Distress; or, The Lucky Discovery would, in the process of locating its catalog number (2153), also have discovered ten other small octavo novels (catalog numbers 2149–2159) whose short title began with “Love” or “Lovers.”

Most circulating libraries used their catalogs as working shelf lists. Surviving illustrations of circulating libraries suggest that they shelved books in descending order of size, with folios occupying upper shelves and duodecimos the lowest ones, although some illustrations also show folios on the lowest shelves. Many illustrations show patrons browsing among shelves, a practice that would have foregrounded generic and physical classes of books by, for instance, making octavo and duodecimo novels literally more accessible, as opposed to folio volumes on divinity elevated beyond patrons’ reach.

Library Stock: “Evergreen Tree of Diabolical Knowledge”?

Circulating libraries quickly gained the reputation for being “an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge”—to use the much-quoted phrase coined by Richard Brinsley Sheridan in his play The Rivals (1775)—that stocked mainly trashy novels. Evidence is mixed about the accuracy of this reputation, but it is probably exaggerated, at least for large, metropolitan libraries. Among the five surviving catalogs of smaller provincial libraries, with average holdings of 430 titles, over 70 percent of the titles rate as fiction, and The Use of Circulating Libraries Considered suggests 79 percent fiction. By contrast, among the seventeen surviving catalogs for large libraries, with average holdings of about 5,000 titles, only an average of 20 percent of the titles may be classified as fiction. However, because many large metropolitan libraries stocked as many as “twenty five copies of each modern and approved work”—to quote a 1798 advertisement by William Lane's Minerva Library—their catalogs may underestimate their actual holdings and trade in the genre, since novels probably constituted a good proportion of “modern and approved” works and since, for economic reasons, larger libraries were more likely to stock multiple copies. Still, large libraries probably dealt less in fiction than did provincial ones, although the difference may be less dramatic than catalogs would indicate.

Regardless of how much multiple copies brought the proportion of fiction circulated by large libraries in line with the proportion listed in provincial catalogs, most libraries also offered patrons works in a fairly standard array of other genres. John Bell's catalog (1778) offers a representative instance of both what these genres were and their relative proportions, at least among large metropolitan libraries, whose catalogs more often classify by genre than do provincial ones. According to Paul Kaufman, Bell's catalog listed 2,150 works of history, lives, and antiquities; 900 of romances and other books of entertainment (such as fiction); 700 of poetry and plays; 700 of livres français; 400 of physic, surgery, and other works of practical instruction; 300 of voyages and travel; and 200 of divinity.

Publishing by Circulating Libraries

Many of the proprietors of large metropolitan libraries were also major publishers, especially when it came to fiction. For instance, during the 1770s John and Francis Noble and Thomas Lowndes were the top two producers of new fiction in London, together accounting for 20 percent of such works. During the 1780s William Lane and Thomas Hookham between them produced 32 percent of new fiction in London. By the 1790s Lane and Hookham accounted for 41 percent of such fiction, with Lane alone producing 33 percent.

During the eighteenth century, publishers attached to circulating libraries were, as a group, over two times more likely than other publishers to publish fiction by women, and circulating library publishers “discovered” many important female novelists, including Frances Burney and Ann Radcliffe. During the last three decades of the eighteenth century, circulating library publishers had a particular affinity for novels that were “anonymously female,” whose title pages, for instance, declared them to be “by a Lady.”

The Victorian “Tyranny” of the Circulating Library

Charles Edward Mudie opened his Select Library in 1842, and between 1852 (when he moved to larger quarters) and his death in 1890, he transformed the circulating library institution in several ways. Most importantly, Mudie vastly increased the scale of the enterprise, advertising aggressively, setting up branch libraries throughout London, offering free pickup and delivery through a system of vans, greatly improving the speed of service to provincial customers, and launching an export department. This “industrial” scale not only allowed him to underprice most of his competitors at one guinea (twenty-one shillings) per year versus two; it also gave him substantial control over the publishing trade, since his libraries bought a large percentage of the books they sold, purchasing an estimated 7.5 million books over the course of the century. Mudie used this influence to ensure that most people could afford to read recently published novels only by subscribing to his library, pressuring publishers to maintain the price of such fiction at an exorbitant ten shillings and six pence per volume and to issue such fiction only in three volumes, with the result that a very small spectrum of the public could afford to buy new novels on a regular basis. Publishers found it profitable to sell the bulk of their output to Mudie and his main rival W. H. Smith &Son, and consequently, until the 1890s, despite complaints by authors, readers, and politicians about the limited access to new fiction, most people who wanted to read it had to go to Mudie or Smith.

In 1858 Mudie had rejected an offer from the newsagents W. H. Smith &Son to lend his Select Library books at their network of railway bookstalls. Early in the 1860s, under the guidance of William Henry Smith the younger, Smith's started its own chain of circulating libraries, using trains to move books between railway bookstalls and a few large, central libraries. The enterprise quickly expanded to a size nearly equaling Mudie’s, but in fundamental ways the two competitors cooperated to foster the Mudie system, since Smith's library followed Mudie's lead both in pressuring publishers to keep the price of new novels high and in excluding books on moral grounds.

This “moral” screening of books, regardless of their commercial promise or artistic merit, was Mudie's second major innovation in the circulating library institution. Victorian society generally accepted such censorship as proper, but some social critics and authors complained bitterly, with censorship of Jude the Obscure (1895) probably contributing to Thomas Hardy's abandonment of novel-writing. After Mudie's censored George Moore's A Modern Lover (1883), Moore launched a public campaign against the practice, publishing “A New Censorship of Literature” in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1894 and the pamphlet Literature at Nurse, or Circulating Morals in 1895. The latter was timed to coincide with the publication of Moore's A Mummer's Wife in one volume at six shillings, and thereafter a growing tide of publishers followed its lead, although they did so less because they shared Moore's artistic outrage than because they now saw more profit in selling new fiction in one volume directly to a “mass” readership for as little as three shillings than in continuing to sell three-volume fiction mainly to Mudie and Smith at an inflated price.

The Twentieth Century

As the selling price for books plummeted after the collapse of the Mudie-Smith system of inflation, circulating libraries also became cheaper. Mudie's and Smith's gradually lost market share to low-cost franchises, the most successful of which was Boots Booklovers’ Library, launched in 1898 as an adjunct to the famous Boots chemists chain. Boots charged an annual fee of ten shillings and six pence (half the fee at Mudie’s) and also rented books for two pence per week on a two shilling and six pence deposit. During its first thirty years it bought an average of one million books per year. Boots's library lasted until 1966, by which time the steady growth of free, tax-funded public libraries (which had been licensed by an act of 1850, but proliferated only from the beginning of the twentieth century) and the ever-decreasing cost of paperbacks put an end to the two-hundred year venture of renting books for profit.

See also Popular Romance and Reading.

Further Reading

Alston, Robin. Library History Database at http://www.ralston.co.uk/contents.htm. The most up-to-date and comprehensive master list of known circulating libraries throughout the U.K., with citations of authorities.Find this resource:

Altick, Richard. The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public 1800–1900. Chicago, 1957. Still the authoritative general work on mass readership, with documentary details about nineteenth- and early twentieth-century libraries and their role in promoting that readership.Find this resource:

Blakey, Dorothy. The Minerva Press. London, 1939. The definitive account of the library and press founded by William Lane, with a bibliography of the press and reproductions of advertisements and other publicity from the library.Find this resource:

Erickson, Lee. The Economy of Literary Form: English Literature and the Industrialization of Publishing 1800–1850. Baltimore, 1996. Chapter 5, “The Economy of Novel Reading: Jane Austen and the Circulating Library,” summarizes evidence about circulating libraries and interprets libraries' effect on reading culture and publishing economics at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.Find this resource:

Griest, Guinevere. Mudie's Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel. Bloomington, IN, 1970. The definitive account of Mudie's library, with much information also about its main rival, W. H. Smith &Son.Find this resource:

Hamlyn, Hilda. “Eighteenth-Century Circulating Libraries in England.” The Library, 5th series, 1 (1947): 197–222. The best short history of libraries of the period, combining concision with careful detail and documentation regarding business practices.Find this resource:

Jacobs, Edward. Accidental Migrations: An Archaeology of Gothic Discourse. Lewisburg, PA, 2000. Chapter 5, “The Gothic Library,” summarizes and interprets known facts about the eighteenth-century circulating library business and provides data on publishing by circulating libraries.Find this resource:

Jacobs, Edward. “Circulating Libraries and Cultural Book History.” Book History 6 (2003): 1–22. Provides data, online resources, and interpretation of the role of circulating libraries in publishing “anonymously female” fiction and in changing reading habits.Find this resource:

Kaufman, Paul. “Community Lending Libraries in Eighteenth-Century Ireland and Wales.” Library Quarterly 33 (1963): 299–312. A summary and interpretation of evidence about libraries in Ireland and Wales.Find this resource:

Kaufman, Paul. “The Community Library: A Chapter in English Social History.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n.s. 57, 7 (1967): 3–67. A crucial summary and interpretation of surviving documentary evidence about eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century circulating libraries in England, especially valuable for its quantified description of extant catalogs.Find this resource:

Kaufman, Paul. “The Rise of Community Libraries in Scotland.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 59 (1965): 233–294. A summary and interpretation of evidence about Scottish libraries.Find this resource:

McKillop, Alan. “English Circulating Libraries, 1725–1750.” The Library, 4th series, 14 (1934): 477–485. An early short history of its subject, less comprehensive than Hamlyn but including some material not in her article.Find this resource:

Raven, James. “Historical Introduction: The Novel Comes of Age.” In The English Novel 1770–1829: A Bibliographical Survey of Prose Fiction Published in the British Isles, edited by Peter Garside, James Raven, and Rainer Schöwerling. Vol. 1, 17701799, edited by James Raven and Antonia Forster, with Stephen Bending, 15–121. Oxford, 2000. A magisterial summary and interpretation of the data compiled by this ongoing effort to “list all novels of the period whether or not surviving in extant copies, their publication and pricing details, and contemporary review information.” Includes a lengthy section on circulating libraries and many tables and statistics that help to quantify their publishing activity.Find this resource:

Raven, James. “The Noble Brothers and Popular Publishing.” The Library, 6th series, 12 (1990): 293–345. A documentary account of publishing by the two brothers who were the earliest circulating library proprietors to become major publishers.Find this resource:

Varma, Devendra. The Evergreen Tree of Diabolical Knowledge. Washington, DC, 1972. A sometimes eccentric but richly documentary history of libraries to the early nineteenth century, with appendices that reproduce the 1797 instructional manual The Use of Circulating Libraries Considered as well as a wealth of book labels and advertisements.Find this resource:

Edward Jacobs