Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Role of the Circulating Library

by Maria Grace

During the Georgian Era literacy rates among the ‘common man’ rose. Consequently, the demand for reading materials increased, driving the rise of two new literary forms, the newspaper and the novel. By 1720, twenty four newspapers were published in Britain. By the 19th century there were fifty four newspapers printed in London alone.

The High Cost of Reading

Unfortunately, the cost of reading material did not decrease with the increase in demand. But, where there’s a will, there’s a way. People banded together to form “newspaper societies” where groups of people, usually those in a local parish, would contribute a weekly sum. With these pooled funds, the society would purchase subscriptions to one or more newspapers. The newspapers would be shared among those in the society.

While they might not be the first to get the news, society members did manage to get their hands on what they might not be able to individually afford. By 1820, around five thousand of these societies were still going strong.

Whether booksellers took note of the idea or came upon it on their own, they realized that, as with newspapers,  there were far more readers who wanted books than could actually afford to pay for them. For some perspective, in 1815, the average (three-volume) novel cost a guinea (a pound and a shilling). Based on the current worth of a guinea's gold content, that was roughly the equivalent of $100 in modern currency.

This doesn’t tell the whole story though. In the early 1800s, a comfortable middle class salary for a family of four was in the neighborhood of £250. (A guinea was slightly more than a pound, but let’s keep the math a little easier.) At the price of a guinea, a typical novel would cost you 1/250 of your yearly income. If you consider the median US income in 2018 as $60,000 (rounding up just a smidge for the sake of the math), then that same novel carries a price tag on the order of $240. Ouch!

Enter the Circulating Library

Booksellers, particularly those in big cities like London, had already begun making changes in their business practices to reflect these economic realities. By the mid-1700s, they had started encouraging clients to linger at their shops “offering comfortable chairs, a warm fireside in cold weather, some even offering refreshments. The best of these shops soon became places where those with literary interests congregated regularly. Even if a bookseller made enough to afford to employ an assistant or two, most spent a goodly portion of their time in their shops, chatting with their customers. In the days before published book and theater reviews, it was these discussions which enabled people to keep up with the news of the literary world. By the mid-eighteenth century, the social aspects of these literary bookstores were nearly as important as the books they housed.” (Kane, 2011)

From here, it was only a short leap for booksellers to allow their best patrons to take books home with them to continue reading, for a fee of course. Trustworthy patrons were often allowed to rent books to read and return. The idea grew and by 1728, James Leake had established the first circulating library in England. (Hilden, 2018) In 1742 Reverend Samuel Fancourt, opened the first circulating library in London. He has also been credited with coining the term circulating library. (Kane, 2011) By the end of the 18th century there were 1,000 circulating libraries across England. (Hilden, 2018)

Libraries Holdings

Early library holdings varied according to the anticipated subscribers of the library. Sometimes existing social clubs or book clubs formed libraries to cater to the interests of their members. These libraries might feature books on science, arts, the classics, law, history, religion or philosophy. Other “club” libraries might feature somewhat broader topics and even some newspapers or magazines which could be made available to members in a separate reading room. These libraries were not open to the public though, available only to members of the club. (Kane, 2011)

Music libraries formed in places like Bath, specifically to allow subscribers access to sheet music. (McLeod, 2017)
Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette - Thursday 11 April 1816 

Since the circulating library was first and foremost a business, it behooved the library to cater to as many as could afford the price of a subscription. So, most library catalogs reflected a much wider selection of books, appealing to the tastes of both men and women since most libraries could not afford to discriminate on the basis of gender. Savvy proprietors quickly realized that the most profitable sort of book was the fashionable novel.

Novels were different than traditional nonfiction books. Where nonfiction works might be read and reread, consulted through the years as a valuable reference, this was not so with the novel. The novel was in fact a “consumable” good. Typically one read a novel once and never again. It was exactly the sort of book that made little sense to purchase (as an individual) and a tremendous amount of sense to rent.

Library catalogues reflected the (largely female reading) public’s hunger for novels. The average circulating library’s catalogue typically listed around five thousand titles. About twenty percent of those were fiction. However, many libraries boasted multiple copies of those novels, sometimes as many as twenty five copies. So that twenty percent of titles probably made up a much larger percentage of the libraries actual holdings. Research on smaller libraries, those averaging less than four hundred and fifty titles, reveals collections of up to seventy five percent fiction titles. Some research suggests that fiction was checked out three to four times as much as nonfiction, implying that for some of these smaller libraries almost all of their stock and trade was in the renting of novels. (Erickson, 1990)

Libraries as a social space

Libraries were first and foremost a business, not a public service as we think of them today. Generally, they required a town with a population of at least two thousand to be profitable. Consequently, they were almost exclusively found in larger towns and resorts.

Libraries could exist in smaller areas, but in those places, they were more of a sideline, added to an existing business. “In 1791, William Lane, famed for the Minerva Press, advertised ‘complete CIRCULATING LIBRARIES . . . from One Hundred to Ten Thousand Volumes' for sale to grocers, tobacconists, picture-framers, haberdashers, and hatters eager for a profitable side line.”(Benson, 1997) Other libraries (those small or not so small) supplemented their income with additional lines of luxury goods like haberdashery, hosiery, hats, tea, tobacco, perfume and even patent medicine. (Erickson, 1990) They might even go so far as to advertise these goods in the local paper.  (McLeod, 2017)

Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser - Thursday 09 February 1815 

Since libraries survived on traffic from the local public, they sought to draw public attention from the local newspapers. Construction of a new library was often publicized in the newspaper as were additions to a library’s collections.

Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette - Saturday 10 January 1807 

La Belle Assemblee, the popular ladies' journal, carried advertisements for circulating libraries: (McLeod, 2017)

To encourage their customers to visit and to linger, libraries, especially in resort areas, often installed reading rooms and “daytime lounges where ladies could see others and be seen, where raffles were held and games were played …” (Erickson, 1990) These rooms were often gathering places for acquaintances to meet or for people to stop and rest during a long excursion into town.

“Since it was the custom to subscribe to the libraries immediately upon arrival in the watering places and resorts, their subscription books became a useful guide to who was in town. In Sanditon the subscription book is used this way. Mr. Parker and Charlotte Heywood go to Mrs. Whitby's circulating library after dinner to examine the subscription book. When they look into it, Mr. Parker ‘could not but feel that the List was not only without Distinction, but less numerous than he had hoped.’” (Erickson, 1990)

Libraries as a business

The circulating library’s profits (primarily) came from lending books to readers for a fee and later selling the used copies for a reduced price after a book (usually a novel) declined in popularity, typically about nine months after its publication.

Subscription prices varied but were generally affordable for the middling classes. Lending periods could vary depending on the kind of book borrowed—two to six days might be the period for a popular new work. Beyond the price of subscription, heavy fines, which could include purchasing the book, could be imposed for returning books late or damaging the books. (Erickson, 1990)

A catalogue of Hookham’s circulating library, 1829

Just how much did a library subscription cost? “The Nobles' brothers charged ten shillings sixpence per year, or three shillings per quarter. The subscriber was then entitled to any two books from the collection at any time. For an additional charge they would even deliver books to your London residence… Some libraries, such as Hookham's, had sliding rates according to services selected.” (Benson, 1997)

(Sanford, 2010)

Most lending libraries had a reading room with the daily newspapers and the most popular magazines available occasionally. Some had a few bookshelves with the most popular current books on them. What they did not feature were rooms of shelves where patrons could browse. In general, the books were kept in closed stacks, away from the public.

In order to borrow a book, a subscriber would peruse the library catalogue lists and select a title. Then, they would go to a clerk who would consult their lists to find the press mark which would allow them to identify what shelf and position to find the book on. The clerk would retrieve the book and allow the patron to determine whether or not they wanted to borrow said book. Clerks tended to be very knowledgeable on the latest books available and might offer recommendations as well. (Kane, 2015) While waiting for the clerk to retrieve their book, patrons might spend time in the reading room, looking over the goods for sale, or even enjoying some light refreshments.

Library failures

In The Use of Circulating Libraries, Thomas Wilson warned that not one circulating library in twenty is, by its profits enabled to give support to a family, or even pay for the trouble and expense attending it; therefore the bookselling and stationary business should always be annexed, and in country towns, some others may be added, particular small, expensive luxury items. (Erickson, 1990) Though it may seem a rather dire warning, running a circulating library required significant business savvy.

Because novels were largely a consumable good, they had a limited shelf life and depreciated quickly, rather like fruit. A substantial portion of a library’s income had to be reinvested in new stock in order to keep new, attractive titles on their shelves. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, rising book prices made this particular difficult task, with many libraries declaring bankruptcy. Mrs. Martin’s Circulating library in Basingstoke to which Jane Austen subscribed, opened in 1798, and failed in 1800. Half the library failures from 1732 to 1799 took place in the nine year period from 1790 to 1799. (Erickson, 1990)

Over the course of the 19th century, books became less expensive. Declining taxes and falling prices on paper, the rise of the paperback cover, and industrialization made books more affordable. Moreover, public libraries came on the scene and allowed individuals to borrow without a subscription fee. Together, these forces brought about the decline of the circulating library, but their influence on the reading public is still felt today.


“British Newspaper History”. Accessed September 6, 2018 https://www.999inks.co.uk/british-newspaper-history.html

Book Shops” Georgian Index. 2003 Accessed August 29, 2018. http://www.georgianindex.net/books/Hatchard.html

Austen, Jane. Ed. R. W. Chapman. Jane Austen's letters to her Sister Cassandra and others. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Benson, Mary Margaret. “Parasols & Gloves & Broches & Circulating Libraries.” Persuasions # 19, 1997 Jane Austen Society of North America.

Erickson, Lee. "The Economy of Novel Reading: Jane Austen and the Circulating Library." Studies in English Literature, 1500-190030, no. 4 (1990): 573-90. doi:10.2307/450560.

Feather, John. The Provincial Book Trade in Eighteenth-Century England. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985.

Glover, Anne. Regency Hot Spots: Bookseller Shops and the Subscription Library. Regency Reader. November 6, 2015. Accessed August 1, 2018. http://www.regrom.com/2015/11/06/regency-hot-spots-bookseller-shops-and-the-subscription-library/

Hatch, Donna. Circulating Libraries in Regency England. Historical Hussies. Friday, November 7, 2014. Accessed July 0, 2018. http://historicalhussies.blogspot.com/2014/11/circulating-libraries-in-regency-england.html

Hilden, L. A. Circulating Libraries in Regency England. L.A. Hilden. July 23, 2018. Accessed July 31, 2018. http://www.lahilden.com/index.php?categoryid=6&p2_articleid=206

Jacobs, Edward and Antonia Forster. "'Lost Books' and Publishing History: Two Annotated Lists of Imprints for the Fiction Titles Listed in the Circulating Library Catalogs of Thomas Lowndes (1766) and M. Heavisides (1790), of Which No Known Copies Survive." The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 89 (1995): 260-97.

Kane, Kathryn. Before the Call Number: The Pressmark. The Regency Redingote. January 16, 2015. Accessed August 29, 2018. https://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/2015/01/16/before-the-call-number-the-pressmark/

Kane, Kathryn. Regency Circulating Libraries — Why, How and Who? The Regency Redingote. October, 211, 2011, Accessed August 12, 2018. https://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/2011/10/21/regency-circulating-libraries-why-how-and-who/.

Manley, K. A. "London Circulating Library Catalogues of the 1740s." Library History 8 (1989) 3,74-79.

Mc Leod, Lesley Anne. Who Doesn't Love a Library? Lesley Anne McLeod. Wednesday, November 8, 2017. http://lesleyannemcleod.blogspot.com/2017/11/who-doesnt-love-library.html

Sanborn, Vic. The Circulating Library in Regency Resorts. Jane Austen’s World. August 30, 2010. Accessed August 15, 2018. https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2010/08/30/the-circulating-library-in-regency-times/

Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful.

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.


  1. Hiya

    Looks like nothing has changed for the world of the bookshop: "Booksellers, particularly those in big cities like London, had already begun making changes in their business practices to reflect these economic realities. By the mid-1700s, they had started encouraging clients to linger at their shops “offering comfortable chairs, a warm fireside in cold weather, some even offering refreshments. The best of these shops soon became places where those with literary interests congregated regularly."

  2. Your site is so helpful in educating me on the times in English history that pertain to the era I'm researching. Thanks for the great information.


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