Circulating Libraries in the Regency Era

Another author friend sent me these questions regarding the circulating libraries. I will provide the short answers to the questions first and then provide a longer explanations.

Was there always a fee to check out a book? Was that paid per item or weekly or monthly? 

There was not necessarily a fee to take a book, but library users did have to subscribe to the library and pay a membership or user fee. The exact amount of the fee varied from library to library. Institutions typically offered a choice of annual, semi-annual, or quarterly memberships. Some had monthly options, or loaned books to individuals on a one-time basis for a fee. Once your subscription fee was paid, you were allowed to take out a certain number of books, and that number depended on your subscription level. 

Was there a librarian who recorded titles and the patrons who wanted to borrow them?

No borrowing records have survived to my knowledge. Occasionally libraries listed subscribers in the back of their catalogues, along with the rules of subscription. There are many surviving library catalogues that provide lists of the books held by the library. 

Was it called checking out a book? Borrowing? Something else?

They did not use “check out.” I have seen the term “use,” as in “the use of two books at a time.” I have also seen “take out.” 

Also, from what I have found, it was a fashionable place to see and be seen, as well as check out books and read the latest magazines and newspapers.

They were certainly fashionable places for the middle classes and were used as places for meetings and discussions. Some libraries had newsrooms attached to them. There are engravings and images from the time which show what libraries looked like, including architecture, and patrons (even dogs) in the space. 

The circulating libraries were not “free” libraries as we think of them today. In public libraries across the U.S. and the UK, people enter, use the books, even check out the books for their use at home with no cost to them. Many people use the libraries for their internet access.

However, during the Regency and a bit beyond, the patrons of the libraries paid a fee to use the materials within. Printed books from the time of the Gutenberg Bible onward were a rich man’s pleasure. Those of modest means, though they may be able to read and write, could not afford to purchase books.

From The Atlantic, we learn, “Before she was a writer, Jane Austen was a reader. A reader, moreover, within a family of readers, who would gather in her father’s rectory to read aloud from the work of authors such as Samuel Johnson, Frances Burney, and William Cowper—as well as, eventually, Jane’s own works-in-progress.

“Not surprisingly, then, in Austen’s novels, the act of reading is a key indication of how a character should initially be judged, and of major turning points in her development. For Austen, the way a character reads is emblematic of other forms of interpretation: One’s skills in comprehending written language are linked to one’s ability to understand life, other people, and oneself.”

Note! If you have not read this article from The Atlantic on “What Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Teaches Readers,” I highly recommend it. It provides wonderful insights into Austen’s innate love of literature and how she crafts her characters around it.

Initially, booksellers became a gathering place for the wealthy or those with particular interests to meet to discuss literature and ideas. The shops themselves offered comfy chairs to sit and peruse a book. A warm fireplace. Tea or other libations. It was assumed the rich could be trusted to treat the books with a degree of respect.

“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.” [Regency Redingote]

Eventually, the booksellers, especially those in London, realized there must be a means to “sell” books to all, not just to the wealthy, for this was a whole new market for their wares. Thus, they created the circulating libraries or lending libraries. Unlike the gentlemen’s clubs mentioned above, these libraries did not discriminate when it came to who could “borrow” the books. If one could afford to pay the fee, one could read from a variety of topics.

Those of us who love to read novels to escape to “other worlds,” would likely have been patrons of the circulating libraries. Many, initially, thought the novels had ruined the minds of young people, especially women. Moreover, novels were quite costly to print, and, as many would not invest so much for a book one might only read once, a change had to come. It was circulating libraries that “encouraged” the printers of the day to print books in three parts to keep patrons coming back for more.

Regency Redingote also tells us, “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. . . . [b]y 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.”

Other Sources:

Going to the Library in Georgian London


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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5 Responses to Circulating Libraries in the Regency Era

  1. Jennifer Redlarczyk says:

    Loved this article and as always you tend to write about something I’m researching. Such a nice friend! Thanks so much for all of your efforts. Love it! Jen

  2. Very interesting. Whenever I moved to a new city, I first found an internist and pediatrician, when my daughter was young, and got library membership; then, if necessary, I found a vet, dentist, a new driver’s license, and a grocery store.

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