The Circulating Library

Fashionable young woman pausing at door of circulating library, facing forward with arm on an umbrella. 30 December 1782 Hand-coloured mezzotint. Courtesy of the British Museum

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.

Serena Reading by George Romney (c) Harris Museum & Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

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.

William Lane - Star , Friday, October 28, 1791
Star (London, England), Friday, October 28, 1791

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

Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

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.

Bookplate for the Circulating Library of Joseph Barber & Son, booksellers in Newcastle-upon -Tyne, their name and address engraved within an ornate frame, decorated by garland, with volumes of books, map and scrolls below. Courtesy of the British Museum

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

Regulations and Conditions

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.’

Google map - Milsom Street Bath
Courtesy of Google map, the library was located above what is now Hobbs
Hookhams Circulating Library, courtesy of John Johnson Collection
Hookhams Circulating Library, courtesy of John Johnson Collection

Examples of circulating library ephemera can also be found in the John Johnson collection at the Bodleian Library.

13 thoughts on “The Circulating Library

  1. jamesdhobsonuk

    Interesting. My relative Richard Dilworth ran a circulating Library in Liverpool. He later gave this up to be a bookseller and printer. I have no other details and it was good to find out more. Thanks


  2. So glad you found the Susanna Oakes image to include! The Lewis Walpole Library only recently acquired the print. The Library also has a few other graphic material related to circulating libraries that might be of interest: ; ; (no image)


    1. All Things Georgian

      Thank you so much for other images, it was actually seeing the Susanna Oakes image that led us to write the blog, so thank you for sharing it 🙂


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  4. Pingback: Circulating Library - Zetetic Books

  5. I work in the 7th oldest circulating library in the US and the oldest continuously running library in New Jersey. The Library Company of Burlington was chartered in 1758 by King George II and we still have much of our original collection!!


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