During the 18th and early 19th centuries the more affluent in society had plenty of time for reading and although circulating or lending libraries had existed prior to the 1700’s, it wasn’t until then that they really took off as booksellers and other organisations saw them as another way of making money by reaching people who couldn’t afford to buy books outright, but who were willing to pay a relatively low subscription to read them, given that the cost of purchasing a book was fairly prohibitive for many. Circulating libraries popped up in towns and cities across the country.
The largest circulating library carrying over 20,000 books, was the Minerva Press on Leadenhall Street, London, established by William Lane and was famous for creating a market for sentimental and Gothic fiction.
At the other end of the scale were small libraries such as that at Ashbourne, Derbyshire, which was run from about 1795 to 1801 by the librarian Susanna Oakes who can be seen in this portrait
There were two types of ‘public’ library in existence, the subscription library and the circulating library. The difference between them being that members of a subscription library also paid for a share of the library and had a say in which books the library purchased and how the library was run.
Both produced a catalogue of books available and you could purchase a copy of this list for around six pence and make your choice of reading material from it. Some simply provided an A-Z list, others provided a more detailed breakdown by category. Subscription libraries tended to be more expensive to subscribe to.
The tariff for a circulating library would have been similar to this one below, dated 1804 :
One pound, 1 shilling per year
Or 12 shillings for half a year
Or 6 shillings per quarter
Or 2 shillings and 6 pence for a month
These subscriptions allowed you to borrow 2 books at a time if you lived in the town or 4 if you lived in the country. The number of books you could borrow varied from library to library.
Each library had its own rules about which had to be strictly adhered to such as these shown below
One catalogue we came across was that of Marshall’s, of Milsom Street, Bath which offered –
‘upwards of twenty thousand volumes, choicely selected in all the different branches of polite literature.’
Examples of circulating library ephemera can also be found in the John Johnson collection at the Bodleian Library.