Regency Circulating Libraries — Why, How and Who?

Ah, the circulating library. Without doubt, one of my favorite settings for a scene in a Regency romance novel. All those long bookshelves, filled with rows and rows of lovely books, in between which the hero and heroine can snatch a brief, private moment. Or, perhaps the villainess lurks within the shadowy labyrinth, eavesdropping in the hope of hearing some juicy bit of scandal she can spread among the beau monde. Sadly, however, both of those scenarios would have been quite impossible in a real Regency-era circulating library. Though there were various types of these circulating libraries in the Regency, operating on different principals, they all had essentially the same roots.

The origins of the circulating library, its Regency variations and the exposure of the shameful statistic so many sought to suppress …

Today, throughout the United Kingdom and the United States, one will sometimes see a muncipal library building, across the grand facade of which can be seen, chiseled in stone, The Such-and-Such "Free" Library. These libraries are actually free, that is, the patrons of the library can use the materials which are housed there, and in many cases, can also check them out for some set period of time without being charged for their use. As the Regency came to a close, these "free" libraries were still at least a half century into the future. However, there were many libraries open across Britain in the Regency, but the use of the materials in these libraries was most definitely not free, patrons paid a fee for the use of any materials owned by that library. And these libraries had their origins more than a century and a half before the Regency began.

For the first century or so after Gutenberg developed the process of printing books with moveable type, in 1450, books were a rare luxury item which only the very wealthy could afford to own. Gradually, over the course of the next century, as more and more books were produced, their prices began to drop, but they were still beyond the means of many literate men and women of moderate means. Booksellers, particularly in London, soon realized there was money to be made from those customers who could not afford to buy their books, but could afford to rent them. This privilege was typically only offered to the booksellers’ best and most trustworthy customers, who could be relied upon to return the books on time and in good condition. Many London bookshops in the mid to late seventeenth century encouraged their customers to linger in 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. In 1742, the Reverend Samuel Fancourt, a dissenting minister, opened what many believe to be the first circulating library in London. In fact, Fancourt may very well have coined the term, for the first instance of "circulating library" in print cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is from one of Fancourt’s advertisements in June of 1742. This library was organized on a subscription plan, by which those who wished to use the books became a member of the library. Each member paid one guinea per year, plus a shilling each quarter day. Fancourt had to relinquish ownership of his library in 1745, but the books were kept and other members reorganized the library as a non-commercial entity run by a committee of the subscribers. They maintained the same dues and fees, out of which they were able to rent rooms for the library in Crane Court, Fleet Street and pay the salary of the librarian, the Rev. Fancourt. The contents of this library were primarily theological, philosophical and technical, thus only appealing to a limited readership. But others in London saw the promise of this circulating library model and soon there were circulating libraries opening up all around London. Within a decade, they began to spread to other cities and towns across Britain. There were soon thriving circulating libraries in Bath, Bristol, Liverpool, Newcastle, Norwich, Birmingham, Hull and Edinburgh. Eventually, nearly every village and hamlet across Britain could boast a circulating library, be it ever so small.

Few of these later circulating libraries stocked religious or philosophical books. But some did originally set up to cater to subscribers with specific areas of interest, though these libraries tended to be formed by existing clubs. For example, there were circulating libraries for members of clubs devoted to science which enabled all its members to have access to all the latest scientific publications in the club’s library, so long as they paid their club dues and were members in good standing. There were similar "club" libraries for those interested in the arts, the classics, the law or history. There were men’s clubs whose members had broader interests, and some of these clubs also had circulating libraries where their members would find books on a wider range of subjects, such as biography, travel, politics, and even agriculture, in addition to a smattering of the more popular books on history, natural philosophy and art. These more general club libraries usually also subscribed to most of the popular newspapers and magazines, making them available in their library or a separate reading room. Here, members could relax and catch up on current events, in the company of other members, with no fear of intrusion from non-members, even their families. Technically, both White’s and Brooks’s were circulating libraries of sorts, as they both subscribed to all the London and some provincial newspapers, which were made available to their members. Those circulating libraries which were established within a club were not open to the public, only to the members of the club which owned the library. In most cases, the membership was all male. Only the members could use the library or borrow books or other materials from it, but all of their family or friends who were not members of the club were excluded.

With the rapidly growing literacy rates in England in the second half of the eighteenth century, there were many people who wanted to read more books than they could possibly afford, due to the current price of books. Booksellers and others in the book trades quickly realized there was a substantial readership with the financial means to borrow all the books they could not, or would not, buy. A few of the private clubs opened their libraries to a wider membership, but at about the same time, even more circulating libraries were established which were open to anyone who could afford the price of subscription. And most of these libraries did not discriminate on the basis of gender, so that both men, and women, who could afford the subscription price had the right to borrow books. The majority of these circulating libraries stocked a large selection of books in a wide range of subjects, hoping to appeal to the reading tastes of all their subscribers. But it was not long before the proprietors of these circulating libraries realized that their most lucrative stock in trade was the steadily increasing number of fashionable novels which were so popular with the growing number of educated ladies of the gentry and aristocracy.

Ironically, in light of its origins as a library of theological publications, by the later eighteenth century, the steadily increasing popularity of the circulating libraries was drawing criticism for corruption. There were a number of critics who held that the novels which the circulating libraries made available to their subscribers were responsible for corrupting taste and morals as well as encouraging idleness. Some of these same critics were outraged at the "wickedness of all kinds" which could be had for a few pence a night, even by innocent young women. In fact, one playwright, George Colman, began his career in 1760 with the play Polly Honeycombe, a comedy in which the heroine is a young woman who reads novels. Colman closed his satirical play with the warning from young Polly’s father that " … a man might as well turn his Daughter loose in Covent-garden, as trust the cultivation of her mind to a CIRCULATING LIBRARY." Fifteen years later, in January of 1775, in Richard Brinsley Sheridan‘s comedy of manners, The Rivals, audiences first heard Sir Anthony Absolute say to Mrs. Malaprop, "Madam, a circulating library in town is as an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge! It blossoms through the year! And depend on it … they who are so fond of handing the leaves, will long for the fruit at last." Sir Anthony, of course, blamed the rejection of his son’s suit for marriage to Mrs. Malaprop’s niece, Lydia, on that young woman’s fondness for the novels she borrowed from the circulating library.

But the genie had indeed been let out of the bottle, and there was no putting it back. Nor was there much interest in doing so, except among the most severe critics. Publishers loved the circulating libraries, as they had a guaranteed market for the bulk of the novels they published. Though early on, publishers could not keep up with the demand and many old novels were reprinted under new names. In fact, one circulating library proprietor, William Lane, turned to publishing to supply his library with novels. Thus was born the Minerva Press, which employed a number of female authors whose works of Gothic horror and sentimental romance filled the shelves of many a circulating library across England by the Regency. It was the circulating libraries which also seem to have exerted pressure on the publishers to standardize on the publication of fashionable novels in three volumes. Those booksellers which did not also operate a circulating library were at a distinct disadvantage, as the price of novels was kept artificially high to encourage borrowing over sales. But even had novel prices been lower, it is unlikely that would have had much effect on novel sales. Most people typically only read a novel once, and would not think of investing the money to purchase a book for which they would not have an ongoing use. Books of poetry, books on classical studies, the law, science, history, agricultural improvements, even travel, were considered worthy of purchase by many, but few, even among the wealthy, would have considered purchasing a novel. As I noted last week, by 1810, the average price of a three-decker novel was seven shillings per volume, which comes to about $90.00 modern-day US dollars. By the Regency, for about a guinea a year, equal to about twenty-one shillings, or the price of one three-decker novel, a circulating library subscriber could borrow as many novels as they liked, with the payment of a small fee, usually a few pence, for each volume they borrowed. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, many circulating libraries also offered group or family rates, thus providing affordable access to books by whole families.

As the number of circulating libraries grew, they came in all shapes and sizes. In London and the larger cities and towns, a circulating library often had a large reading room, where subscribers could take their leisure as they read the most current newspapers and magazines which were made available. Very few circulating libraries allowed their patrons to browse their stacks. Rather, subscribers calling in at the circulating library would tell the clerk at the counter the name of the book they wished to borrow, as well as the volume number, if it was a novel, and then wait for it to be brought to them. They would while away the time in the reading room, looking over a magazine or chatting with friends who might also be waiting for their books to be brought out to them. If it was a new novel, a young lady might choose to spend some time looking it over before she made the decision to borrow it. If she did not like it, she would return it to the clerk and ask for another title, or, in many cases, ask for his recommendation, if no other titles of interest had been referred to her by friends. Circulating library clerks made it a point to be knowledgeable about all the newest novels in order to best serve their patrons. As had the seventeenth-century book shops which allowed trusted customers to rent books, the reading room of a circulating library became a popular meeting place for many of its patrons. There were still all-male circulating libraries, where the conversation was more likely to center on politics, sport or estate management. But in the circulating libraries which accepted subscriptions from both men and women, conversation was typically of popular novels, upcoming social events, and, of course, shopping. It was not uncommon for ladies to repair to the reading room of their circulating library to take their ease when fatigued by a long shopping excursion. In many reading rooms, they might even be able to fortify themselves with some light refreshment before heading out to the shops once again. The circulating library reading room might also be a convenient meeting place for a group of young ladies prior to shopping, or for a young lady to meet her beau. Circulating libraries were especially popular in resort towns, where people had the leisure time to enjoy both reading and socializing in the reading rooms. Most resort circulating libraries offered pro-rated fees for those who would did not live year round in the town. For more detail and some period images, click over to The Circulating Library in Regency Resorts at Jane Austen’s World.

At the far opposite end of the spectrum from the grand big-city and resort circulating libraries were those in the small towns and villages. Perhaps they would be better termed "circulating shelves" rather than libraries, as many of them were just that, a few shelves of books behind the counter at the village haberdasher or dry-goods store. It was not unheard of for the innkeeper or even the blacksmith to be the custodian of these compact circulating libraries in some of the smaller and more rural hamlets. Even here, novels did make up at least part of the collection, but they were typically novels which were no longer fashionable. The proprietors of these tiny circulating libraries often had some arrangement with a larger circulating library in a nearby town to send them a couple boxes of books they could spare on a regular schedule. The previous shipment of books was usually returned at about the same time, so those in the village who wished to read a newly arrived book would have to do so before it was returned and replaced by a new set of books. Typically, these small circulating libraries only charged a few shillings for the annual subscription, though some did not even bother with that, and simply charged a few pence for each book borrowed. The shopkeeper who housed the circulating library in a village would not be able to support him or herself solely on its income. But for most, they took the trouble because it brought more people into their shops, and any traffic brought with it the potential for a sale. There were some village dressmakers who made it a point to have a few novels on hand for borrowing, even if they were not the most recently published. The village ladies might come in to return or borrow a novel and leave with a newly purchased petticoat or after having placed an order for a new gown in a fabric which was on display in the shop and caught their eye while they waited to exchange their books.

And now, to that shameful statistic which the circulating libraries did their best to suppress. By the end of the eighteenth century, for most of the general interest circulating libraries, more than seventy-five percent of their business was the lending of novels. They all maintained a selection of other, more uplifting books, mostly as a sop to critics, and for the reading pleasure of their more straight-laced subscribers. But the majority of the profits for most circulating libraries came from novels, and most of their customers were ladies. This trend continued through the Regency, but another trend was also just beginning about the same time. Because novels were so popular, particularly with the ladies, and because it was clear nothing could be done to eliminate them, as the Regency was ending, under pressure from critics and concerned parents and guardians, circulating libraries were making it a point to stock a greater number of morally unobjectionable novels. Because the circulating libraries were their primary market, publishers were forced to comply with this growing demand. By the mid-nineteenth century, when Charles Mudie‘s Select Library was the most powerful circulating library in Britain, he refused to stock any novel which might offend the sensibilities or morals of a gently-bred teenage girl. The up and coming English middle class flocked to Mudie’s because they knew the books they would find there would be quite inoffensive and would reflect the world they knew. The novels which your average Regency miss found at the circulating libraries in her day would have been much less sanitized than were those read by her Victorian counterpart. The circulating libraries of the Victorian era continued to exercise this power through the rest of the nineteenth century, much to the disgust of many authors and publishers, not to mention the more sophisticated readers of the time.

Circulating libraries in England were very popular by the Regency and could be found in some form or another in nearly every town and village in the country. The majority of their patrons were ladies and the majority of the books they loaned were novels, regardless of the fact that there were many critics of the fashionable novels and of fiction in general. Jane Austen herself was a subscriber to circulating libraries and she wrote about them in some of her novels. Regardless of the fact that there were a number of critics of ladies reading novels, by the Regency, most people accepted the practice even if they did not entirely approve. The larger circulating libraries had reading rooms which were popular meeting places for their patrons while the very small ones were just a shelf or two in a village shop. Today, when we enter a library or bookstore, we take it for granted that we will be allowed to browse the shelves and select whichever books catch our interest. Such was not the case during the Regency. Nearly all circulating libraries and most bookshops kept the majority of their books in closed stacks, to which only their staff had access. A few new books might be kept on open shelves in the reading room, to pique the interest of their patrons, but for the most part, patrons would have to request the books they wanted from the clerk at the counter. Most circulating libraries would provide catalogs of the books available for the perusal of their patrons, as did many books shops. It was also common for publishers to include lists of the books they published in the back of all their books so potential buyers would know what to ask for at either the bookshop or the circulating library. So, despite all those Regency novels with scenes in between the stacks of a circulating library or bookshop, such opportunities would never have actually occurred during the Regency because patrons would not have had access to the area where the majority of the books were shelved. However, those open reading rooms would still make quite appropriate settings for meetings between the hero and heroine, perhaps for a discussion of their favorite books, or of an upcoming social event. The hero might get his first look at the heroine when she comes into the village haberdashery to exchange a book at the small circulating library maintained there. And it should not be forgotten that most of the people who read the novels of Jane Austen when they were first published borrowed those novels from their local circulating library.

Next week, the bicentennial of the publication of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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16 Responses to Regency Circulating Libraries — Why, How and Who?

  1. Pingback: Regency Three-Deckers:   On the Cusp of Monopoly | The Regency Redingote

  2. Fascinating! I confess it would not have occurred to me – having practically lived in our local library during the school holidays of my childhood – that one would not browse the shelves oneself. Thank you for this excellent piece of information.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I suspect, that if your local library has a research collection, those books are still housed in closed stacks, as they are unlikely to be circulating material. Such is the case with the main library here in Boston.

      Most libraries today still have one foot in the old ways, and only their circulating collections are on open stacks. The more valuable books which constitute their research collections are typically closed to patrons. To use these books, one has to fill out a call slip and wait for the book to be brought to them. They cannot take it home, it can only be used in the library and must be returned to a staff member when they finish working with it.

      This practice may seem an unnecessary nuisance to some, but I have come to appreciate its real value. As an art historian, a number of the books to which I have referred over the years have been quite expensive. The Boston Public Library often owned two copies, one for the circulating collection, and one for the research collection. More often than not, when I needed the book, the circulating copy was missing or declared lost, but I still had the option of using the research copy. It could not leave the library, which was often rather inconvenient for me, though much less inconvenient than not being able to get the book at all.

      All books in the Regency were fairly costly, which is one of the main reasons they were not made accessible to library patrons or to potential buyers in a book shop.



  3. Joanna Waugh says:

    Great article, Kathryn! I must confess, I’m one of the guilty. I’ve allowed my characters to peruse circulating library shelves. Thanks for setting the record straight!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Books have been made available on open shelves in both libraries and bookstores for nearly a century now, so few people today would have any idea that such was not the case during the Regency. Many period movies are guilty of the same historical faux pas. And, I must admit, flirtation between the bookshelves is very romantic, so it would be hard to resist when writing. I have enjoyed some of those scenes myself, even though I knew they were historically inaccurate. 😉

      In addition to protecting valuable books, there was another reason most purveyors of books kept them in closed stacks. Few of these establishments could afford elegant, well-designed and constructed bookshelves of fine woods, even if they catered to the quality trade. Nor did they want to commit any more space on their premises for book storage than was absolutely necessary. Thus, most circulating libraries and many book shops had cheap shelving of unfinished pine or deal in their back rooms. And those shelves would be very tightly jammed together, with very narrow aisles, in order to maximize the available storage space. The clerks would know where the various books were stored, so they would not spend time browsing in these cramped quarters. They would just grab the book(s) the customer had requested and take them out to the elegant reading room for the customer to peruse at their leisure.

      Now, if for some reason, one of your characters might duck into the back room of a book shop or circulating library; perhaps the heroine, followed by the hero, they would find themselves in very tight quarters indeed. A few moments of flirtation or romance might be squeezed in before a clerk or the shop owner spied them and either demanded an explanation of their presence or ordered them to leave.

      I am glad you found the article of interest. Thank you for stopping by and for taking the time to comment.



  4. Isobel Carr says:

    I made what must be a similar mistake, Joanna. I have characters shopping for books in one novel and the small selection is in boards on shelves.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      If your characters were shopping in a small book shop in town or in a book shop in a small village, such a scene as you describe was possible. Some of the smaller shops did not have enough space to keep all their books in the back room, they might not even have a back room. Such was often the case in bookshops which handled mostly used books. However, these would not be shops which were trying to keep up appearances with elegant furnishings, and they were small enough the proprietor could keep an eye on his customers. That was not possible in the larger shops, especially in London, which got a lot of traffic and stocked the more desirable, and thus, more valuable, first run of many books. It was those more upscale shops which were more likely to have closed stacks. Particularly in circulating libraries, they often had a dozen or more copies of the same book, which would make browsing rather dull, with seemingly endless shelves of the same title.

      Those very small circulating libraries in village shops might also allow their customers to browse their few shelves of books. The books were seldom, if ever, first run, hot-off-the-press titles, and the shop owner knew all the folks in the village, so there was little chance of theft. More likely there would be squabbles among those browsing as to just who saw, or grabbed, a new book first.



  5. Angelyn says:

    Wonderful article and well-researched. With all the pilfering going on in modern libraries, I can see some of these restrictions returning to general collections, in addition to their use among special collections.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for your kind words. I am glad you enjoyed it.

      I am rather saddened, but resigned, to the fact that some of the restrictions you described are already in place in some libraries, but they seem to be applied primarily to DVD and CD collections. Some of the folks who manage these libraries seem to have forgotten about the books! But then, I am a dyed-in-the-wool bibliophile, so I do accept the fact that I am very prejudiced in favor of books! 😉

      Thanks for stopping by.



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  7. Dear Kat, Such a wonderful article. Thank you. it always amazes me when I am in the middle of writing a book and just the right piece of information comes along. I have a circulating library scene in my current wip, and guess what I invented a reading room with refreshments, or at least I thought I had, I must have seen it somewhere and my subconscious did its thing. So happy to have it all confirmed by your article, and can now improve my scene. One question. Is it likely such a circulating library would have copies of La Belle Assemblee? I had this idea that they would, but my librarian isn’t lending it out, because ladies keep it too long and so it must be read in the reading room. Too far fetched, do you think?
    Ann Lethbridge

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad to know the Redingote is serving its purpose, and has been of use to you in your research.

      Most circulating libraries catered to the interests of their subscribers. If a library catered to the fashionable set, there is a very good chance they would have La Belle Assemblée available in their reading room. Most circulating libraries made the bulk of their income loaning novels to ladies, so they would be likely to provide magazines of interest to those same ladies in their reading rooms, as an added attraction, if you will. However, it is very unlikely such a magazine would be found in a library which catered to gentlemen, like that at White’s or Brooks’s. 🙂

      I think your circulating librarian is dead on, in terms of not allowing periodicals out of the reading room. Circulating libraries could be very idiosyncratic, and rules could vary from library to library. However, from what I have learned in my research, most of the larger libraries in the big cities would buy sometimes as many as two dozen copies of popular novels. However, most seem to have had only one or two subscriptions to the periodicals they offered, and thus did not allow them to leave the reading room. At least not the current numbers of those periodicals. I have found suggestions in some letters and diaries that there were a few libraries that did allow patrons to borrow older numbers of periodical which were no longer in high demand. Of course, it is doubtful that very many of their patrons who considered themselves among the fashionable set would want old copies of fashion magazines.

      There is also the social factor of the reading room at the circulating library. The latest issue of La Belle Assemblée would be the perfect excuse for a young lady to meet her bosom bows at the reading room to look over the fashion plates and more importantly, gossip out of earshot of their mamas or chaperones. And while she was there, she might also borrow a copy of one of the latest novels. Circulating libraries did all they could to draw patrons in, because each visit meant an opportunity for additional income.

      I hope that helps with planning your scene.



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