Sunday, January 15, 2012

Libraries in Georgian and Regency England

by Lauren Gilbert

Stourhead Library, Southwest Corner

In the 18th century, the marketing of literature evolved from private patronage to publishing by booksellers. This resulted in writers becoming less entertainers for hire (e.g. in the 16th century, Spenser writing the FAERIE QUENE for the court of Queen Elizabeth) and more independent professionals. This resulted in two new literary forms-the periodical essay and the novel. These forms brought literature into the clubs, coffee houses, assemblies and other public places (out of the universities, private libraries, and churches) and exposure to a wider audience (merchants and the “climbing” man). In the Georgian era, reading became more commonly taught to the lower classes because of a concern that people should be able to read the Bible for themselves. Money was furnished to the Church of England for this education, and more people were exposed to reading material.

Initially, a library or study was not common- a collection of books (especially with leather bindings) in a private home was a sign of wealth and prestige. A library or study was designed for the use of the master, being a place where “…”typically, a country gentleman would receive his tenants or keeper….” (Pool, 191) Until 1861, the tax on paper helped keep books scarce and expensive. The Stamp Act of 1797 levied a tax of sixpence on each copy of a newspaper. This was raised in 1815 to 4 pence, with a separate tax of 3 shillings on pamphlets and 3 shillings sixpence on newspaper advertising. (Hughes, 128) Books were expensive and considered luxuries. At the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting in 2004, at the Huntingdon Museum, Stephen Tabor lectured on “The Look of the Book” in Jane Austen’s time and described the bindings: leather (most expensive), cloth, and paper. For example, when Thomas Creevey, MP, found books too expensive to buy, he lamented when he could no longer access certain volumes of Wellington’s Dispatches and had to make do with works available from a different library. The cost factor alone makes Reverend Austen’s library of over 500 volumes all the more remarkable.

Because of the cost of newspapers, newspaper societies were formed in local parishes where a group of people each contributed a weekly sum to subscribe to a London newspaper and 2 or 3 provincial papers (about sixpence a week); poorer districts had more subscribers contributing less (about 1 penny a week) to subscribe to a provincial papers. (A total of 5000 of these societies were operating in the 1820’s.) Local printers and booksellers started their own libraries. In London alone, in 1819 there were 28 booksellers which kept circulating libraries, and 9 with reading rooms. Hatchard’s Booksellers which was found in 1797 in Piccadilly, and is still open today, was one of the booksellers with a reading room. In 1821, there were approximately 65,000 reading societies in Great Britain providing reading material for annual subscriptions ranging from ½ guinea to 2 guineas a year to families. The cost of books caused people to combine to form libraries. On Nov. 30, 1814, in reference to a possible 2nd edition of MANSFIELD PARK, Jane Austen wrote, “People are more ready to borrow and praise, than to buy –which I cannot wonder at.” (JANE AUSTEN’S LETTERS, p. 287) Most towns had subscription libraries and circulating libraries where books could be borrowed for an annual fee. Lending libraries of this nature started up in provincial towns and watering places, and spread. Although a large percentage of published material was religious in nature, novels became extremely popular across all class lines. For example, the novels of the Minerva Press, which included THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLFO by Mrs. Radcliffe, were read by all levels of society.

Many of these subscription libraries still exist and are in use in England today. The Association of Independent Libraries was founded in 1989, and the founding members were all institutions which began as independently-funded subscription libraries established between 1768 and 1841. The association now includes libraries of historic foundation not necessarily meeting the original criteria. The oldest member library is Chetham’s Library, founded in Manchester in 1653 as a public reference library by Humphrey Chetham, a merchant, for the benefit of the people of Manchester. The smallest member library is the Tavistock Subscription Library, founded in 1799 in Tavistock, Devonshire-in 1810, the Duke of Bedford was the president of this library. The majority of the libraries in this association still retain their independence.

Image: Library at Stourhead House via Wikimedia Commons,_Library,_south-west_corner.jpg#file


JANE AUSTEN’S LETTERS. Deidre Le Faye, editor. 3rd Edition 1993 (paperback ed. 1997). Oxford University Press, Oxford.

LIFE IN GEORGIAN ENGLAND; E. N. Williams; 1962, 1967: William Clowes & Sons, London.

LIFE IN REGENCY ENGLAND; R. J. White; 1963, 1969; William Clowes & Sons, London.

WHAT JANE AUSTEN ATE AND CHARLES DICKENS KNEW; Daniel Pool; 1993: Simon & Schuster Inc., New York NY.

THE WRITER’S GUIDE TO EVERYDAY LIFE IN REGENCY AND VICTORIAN ENGLAND FROM 1811-1901; Kristine Hughes; 1998: Writer’s Digest Books (F & W Publications) Cincinnati OH.

Internet Sources:
Sanborn, Vic. “The Circulating Library in Regency Resorts.” Jane Austen’s World blog, 8/30/2010. Viewed 8/30/2010.


  1. I think that it is something to see how far along we have come to where the common people can afford to have their own books and know how to read them. I enjoyed your post about what it was like for the readers of the day.


  2. A wonderful post on how libraries evolved. They are still evolving today! Witness the e-book revolution - more books in more hands all the time. Though I do LOVE a book-lined room, and to be surrounded by books- all on the Georgian era of course! ;-)
    Thanks for sharing, Lauren!

  3. Great post. I belong to the Nottingham Subscription Library - Bromley House and it's still a wonderful place to borrow books!

  4. And the libraries went to some length to 'encourage' business. During the Regency, Hookham's lending library in London--as well as providing the latest in Gothic romances to the squealing Catherine Morlands of society--also sold hats.

  5. It is so fascinating to learn of such things. I never dreamed that libraries were anything different than they are today. But it makes sense that they would have had to be what they could in any given time, and I am so glad that some of the subscription libraries have lived on. As for the hats, when I visit my daughter some 2.5 hours away, we have to visit the 'big hat store' for a little taste of Victoriana each time.

    An interesting tidbit I learned when I was writing The Companion of Lady Holmeshire: paper was made from, not wood, but rags, up until about the time of my setting- 1840ish.

  6. Wonderful information! Thank you!

  7. Thanks for the great post. It is important to remember that the book industry was never static. Publishers and authors have always looked for new and better ways to get their books to their readers - though it is remarkable to think that in just 200 years we've gone from one lending library for an entire community to an entire library for every person, via their ereader!


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