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Modern Libraries: 1725-1749 CE

Madame de Pompadour Francois Boucher Wikimedia PDLet's examine commercial library enterprises also known as circulating libraries.

While subscription and social libraries were created for the benefit of a group of users, the commercial circulating library was an enterprise operated for profit. The customer's role was to simply patronize the establishment.

Interest in access to information on a wide variety of subjects was increasing. People were drawn to leisure reading as a personal and social activity. Fiction was increasingly popular, particular with young people. Some books were viewed a scandalous and obscene. It was during this time that the novel was introduced. David Kaser (1980) notes that in England the growth of circulating libraries and novels went hand-in-hand.

The painting on the right is of Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764) by Francois Boucher.

Booksellers and others interested in the publishing business recognized that an increasing population was interested in reading, but didn't have the wealth necessary to establish personal book collections. A commercial enterprise library could provide access to books at an affordable price. These businesses weren't concerned about the quality of the literature they rented. Instead, they sought titles that the public would pay to read. While the subscription libraries were sometimes bogged down in the bureauocracy of the organization, circulating libraries could quickly adapt to changing client needs and desires.

Robinson Crusoe 1715 Wikimedia Commons PDThe image on the right shows a copy of DeFoe's Robinson Crusoe from 1719.

The printing industry was continuing to grow. Most books were being produced with inexpensive materials. According to Jacobs (2006, 5),

"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."

Unfortunately, little thought was placed on quality or preservation of materials so many books from this time period didn't survive.

Circulating Libraries

The term circulating library was used to describe commercial library enterprises that charged a fee for users. These libraries often carried a wider range of materials including fiction. This met the need of members of the community that could not meet the exclusive requirements of a society or subscription library. According to Jacobs (2006, 5),

"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."

Skim Circulating Libraries of Boston, 1765-1865 by Charles Knowles Bolton for an exploration of many examples.

Circulating Library of the United Kingdom

Beginning in the late 1600s and flourishing in the eighteenth century, circulating libraries continued into the twentieth century. Booksellers and other commercial enterprises would rent books for a quarterly or annual fee.

Jacobs (2006) indicated that circulating libraries were used mostly by the middle-class, particularly women and servants. While customers needed money for fees, their investment was small compared to subscription libraries of the time.

In the 1660's a bookseller named Francis Kirkman created a catalogue of plays that he would lend from his shop in Westminster. Then in 1674, Widow Page began advertising rented book.

Heath's Circulating BookstoreRamsay's Circulating Library was established by Allan Ramsay of Edinburgh, England in 1725. In 1737, William Bathoe established two locations in London. The bookseller would provide lending services in additional sales.

The image on the right shows a bookplate from Heath's Circulating Library in Nottingham from the mid 1700s.

By 1800, hundreds of commercial circulating libraries were open in Britain. The booksellers stressed the atmosphere of their shop including beautiful interiors and long operating hours. The Minerva Library lasted until the mid 1800s.

In The Use of Circulating Libraries Considered: With Instructions on Opening and Conducting a Library, Either upon a Large or Small Plan (1797), the author stated that "for a successful circulating library, the collection must contain 70% fiction." It also suggested that book rental be combined with some other business such as stationery or newspaper sales. Libraries could also be combined with the sale of medicines, teas, or perfumes. While some libraries rented books for around a penny per volume, larger libraries would require annual fees.

Most circulating libraries restricted users to two books at a time and did not circulate large or expensive titles. Often new books had to be returned in only a few days. Fines were charged for overdue books.

Catalogs contained a listing of materials available and were organized by format and genre, then alphabetized. These catalogs were used as working shelf lists. Materials were often organized by size with the upper shelves containing larger books. The larger-sized books were known as folios and the pocket-size books were called duodecimos.

Examine the image of a 1790s John Rackham circulating library token and a Fisher's Library Lounge token.

Circulating Libraries of the United States

Circulating libraries also caught on in what would become the United States.Most of the libraries specialized in fiction.

William Rind established a circulating library in Annapolis, Maryland in 1763. His collection included 150 titles and a selection of maps. According to Rind,

"as the richest Soil, without due cultivation, runs into rank and unprofitable Weed, so little Fruit can be expected from the best natural Endowments, where the Mind is not under the Direction of proper intellectual Aids." (Maryland Historical Society)

Rind's library failed after a couple years, but over the next few decades other businesses along the East coast were more successful. For instance, Lewis Nicola introduced the first circulating library in Philadelphia in 1767.

Boston Book Store
Boston, Massachusetts

Benjamin Guild Wikimedia Commons PDBenjamin Guild (1749-1792) operated the Boston Book Store and circulating library in the 1780s-1790s. Subscribers paid eight dollars per year or two dollars per quarter. Customers could check out no more than two books at a time. Any book lost or destroyed would be purchased by the customer.

The image on the right shows one of his many newspaper ads from 1787.

The library included more than a thousand volumes. According to a newspaper ad, the library "will furnish such a fund of amusement and information as cannot fail to entertain every class of readers... whether solitary or social - political or professional - serious or gay" (shown below).

Guild Library Wikimedia Commons PD

Union Wikimedia PDUpon Guild's death, William P. Blake took over the circulating library.

Union Circulating Library
Boston, Massachusetts

Bookseller, publisher, and librarian, William Blagrove established the Union Circulating Library in 1804.

Click the image on the right to read the Conditions of the Union Circulating Library.

In his book A Book for a Sixpence: The Circulating Library in America, David Kaser lists 439 circulating libraries in America. In American Circulating Libraries Not in Kaser, Jeffrey Croteau (2011) created a list of those libraries not found on Kaser's original list. Croteau was able to find many libraries by exploring the advertisemenst found in newspapers around American. His research is an excellent example of how the growth of digital materials has made the quest for primary source evidence more readily available.

Circulating libraries flourished throughout the 1700s and 1800s. The rental library movement continued well into the 20th century when television filled the need for cheap entertainment.

Circulating Libraries around the World

In 1770, John Andrews established a circulating library in Calcutta. Lasting only a decade, users were able to consult a catalog and either purchase or rent books.

Chained Libraries

By the 18th century most libraries had given up their chains. However the Bolton School library chained up its school library in 1735. This antiquated approach was probably the result of combining the old Bolton Parish Church collection with the school collection.

An image of the Bolton Grammar School Library is shown below.

Bolton Grammar School Library in Old Church and School Libraries PD


Bolton, Charles Knowles (1907). Circulating Libraries in Boston, 1765-1865. Colonial Society of Massachusetts. Available: http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/13899037

Christie, Richard Copley (1885). The Old Church and School Libraries of Lancashire. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=sxwsAAAAMAAJ

Clark, John Willis (1901). The Care of Books. Cambridge University Press Warehouse. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=uvQ_AAAAYAAJ

Coleman, Sterling Joseph (2008). Empire of the Mind: Subscription Libraries, Literacy, and Acculturation in the Colonies of the British Empire. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=fP-9bKK7yxkC&pg=PA17

Croteau, Jeffrey (2011). American Circulating Libraries Not in Kaser (PDF).

Edwards, Edward (1859). Memoirs of Libraries. Trubner & Co. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=FgmsfVR5UFkC and http://books.google.com/books?id=l60FAAAAMAAJ

Jacobs, Edward (2006). Circulating Libraries. In Davis Scott Kastan (ed). The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, Volume 1. Preview Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=DlMUSz-hiuEC

Kaser, David (1980). A Book for a Sixpence: The Circulating Library in America. Beta Phi Mu.

Putnam, George Haven (1896). Books and their Makers During the Middle Ages: Volume 1. G.P. Putnam. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=2BVFAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA153

Hamilton, J. & Wilson, T. (1797). The Use of Circulating Libraries Considered: With Instructions on Opening and Conducting a Library, Either upon a Large or Small Plan.

Nair, P. Thankappan (2012). First Circulating and College Libraries of Calcutta. Punthi Pustak.

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