June 23

56 comments

The Regency Circulating Library

Hi there my darlings,

Do you all love the smell of old books in a library as much as I do? I sure hope so! But what did libraries look like in the Regency Era? Well for one thing, they were called Circulating Libraries, instead of our more modern “lending” or “public” libraries.

Circulating libraries in the 18th and 19th centuries were associated with leisure and were found in cities and towns with a population of 2,000 and upward. I know it doesn’t sound like much now, but that was a fairly large town by the era’s standards.

In 1801, it was said that there were 1,000 circulating libraries in Britain. Book shops abounded as well, but in 1815 a 3-volume novel cost the equivalent of $100 today. Such a price placed a novel beyond the reach of most people. They made books accessible to many more people at an affordable price. Can you even imagine how hard it was for middle or lower class women to have access to books without them?

For only two guineas a year, a patron could check out two volumes. This meant that for the price of one book, a patron could read up to 26 volumes per year. They attracted many patrons, even those who did not necessarily come to borrow or book or read, for they were also places for fashionable people to “hang out” and meet others.


A few of these circulating libraries were set up to cater to subscribers with specific areas of interest, though these libraries tended to be formed by existing clubs. Here, members could relax and catch up on current events, in the company of other members, with no fear of intrusion from non-members. 

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. In most cases, the membership was all male. “Technically” being an operative word here, since we know that all sorts of improprieties were abound in those clubs… 

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. 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.


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. 

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. 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.

(c) Harris Museum & Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

But the question arises...

“What would a young lady in the Regency be reading?”

Here are some examples:

Amelia – Henry Fielding - 1751

Frankenstein – Mary Shelley – 1818

Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift – 1726

Ivanhoe – Sir Walter Scott - 1819

The Modern Griselda – Maria Edgeworth - 1805

The Pirate – Sir Walter Scott -1822

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen - 28 January 1813

Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe -1719

Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen - 30 October 1811

The Talisman – Sir Walter Scott – 1825


How far we think we have evolved from those times and how much we still are the same is what always strikes me when researching habits like these. Libraries nowadays basically serve the same purpose, they provide access to books we have no reason to spend money on if we only want to read them once, or look something up in them. And, much like they did back then they become meeting places, excuses to exchange ideas and knowledge. The main difference between now and then? The internet… The comfort of having information readily available to us with a few keystrokes and with little to no cost threatens the existence of good old fashioned libraries. 

I try my best to support them with regular visits, even if I sometimes am only there for that beloved old book smell…

What do you think? Libraries, a thing of the past or a cherished place that must be preserved? Let me know in the comments below! 

Written by Emma Linfield!


Tags

Articles, Regency Romance


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  • Fascinating. I love having the opportunity to increase my knowledge of the Georgian and Regency Periods

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  • Being a former librarian I love books. I like to hold them in my hands. I prefer to read a book but, I do admit though, that you can’t beat a Kindle with many books in it while traveling. Much better than buying books at the airport or lugging them with you.

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    • There are definitely treasures to be found in both! The ease of an e-reader and the feel of a good old fashioned book! <3

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  • Keep the Libraries!! I love perusing the shelves to find treasures I might not have seen otherwise. There’s nothing quite like the feel of a good book in hand versus an e-reader; they are useful and I do have one, but I love my books.

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  • Thank you for the interesting article on circulating libraries. My mother was a librarian for many years. I started to study to become a librarian but the University I was at ended that program so I became a teacher. What I miss most in modern libraries is the card catalog. When I visited the Kansas Historical Museum I found that they still had drawers full of cards to sort through to access the information I needed.
    Thanks for the article, Cliff

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  • I am extremely interested in the Edwardian, Georgian, Victorian eras, so I knew about circulating libraries. I believe them to be an essential part of everyone’s history, and very important even in today’s techie world.

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  • I used to go to the library many times a month. When I got my first reader that stopped. I would check out 10 books or more and carry several with me. Now I have over 800 on my tablet and in the Amazon cloud. For me libraries are a thing of the past. Thank you for this delightful article.

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    • I’m so happy you have that! It is truly important to have access to great books! I love libraries because they can provide that for those less fortunate, that don’t have easy access to ebooks 🙂

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  • I hope libraries live on forever. I love the smell of books and libraries are the reason why I got into reading in the first place. Ebooks are fine but having an actual book is a different kind of magic ❤

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  • They did have books, I have been a fan of library of them, my 3 girls would & me would go every weekend, I always told them it’s inportant, always to be informed.

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  • I appreciate and enjoy these articles which add to my historical perspective for the books I love reading. My little, but mighty, town Library here in New Hampshire has done a wonderful job keeping patrons informed and continually providing services during these challenging times.I will be happy when I am able to again spend time browsing its shelves. Thank you.

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    • It is great to hear about libraries withstanding the test of time and helping people in difficult times! I’m glad you enjoyed the article! 🙂

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  • Thank you for this interesting info! I love libraries and always will. Book shops are still inviting also.

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  • Although most of the books I read now are e-books I still love going to the library which I have my whole life. Reading always takes me to other times and places. This one place (library) would be tragic if it no longer existed. Love the feel and smell of books ! Thank you for illuminating articles I look forward to them .

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    • I love the smell of old books too! It’s one of my favorite things! I’m glad you enjoyed the article! 🙂

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  • I love going to the library where I could explore and find books I would borrow. Every Friday, as a youngster, I walked eight Chicago blocks to the local public library and carried back 6 to 8 books to read that week. It was a ritual.

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  • Interesting article. Our small town is building a brand new library to be completed in October. With the internet and new things coming out they decided the old library was too outdated.

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  • I love learning about the little tidbits of history, especially within the historical romance novels. Thank you for sharing this! Love your stories!

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  • I still like going to the library we have it our town. I still like brows through the books to see what they have or looking for a special topic. It’s fun.

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  • I hope they are preserved. Even though it’s been a long time since I have been in one, I do know that a lot of people still use them.

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  • I have read all the books in my local library that I am interested in. They still have the same books that were there 20 years ago. At least on Amazon I can look for new books, find new authors and read the kind of books that interest me, Regency/Victorian Romance.

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  • I didn’t know about circulating libraries in the Regency era. It was a interesting read. During the reading I found that Whites was a true existing building. Thank you for increasing my knowledge base.

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  • I didn’t know about circulating libraries in the Regency’s era. It was an interesting read. During the reading, I found was a true established functioning establishment and not fiction. Thank

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  • Libraries should never be forgotten or un-used. They hold more information
    and learning opportunities that electronics cannot do.

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  • Libraries are a great asset for the communities they are located in. We have one not too far from where I live & it also offers things to do which are of interest to many people. We also have a mobile library & a book club which is serviced by the local library. Fantastic. Then there’s the Internet which offers everyone information which is most pertinent to them. Truly a marvelous invention for the 21st Century!! In my youth I was an intense user of the library & then when I had my children I used it for the Toy Library & now I use it with my book club. I think to lose such an asset would be really devastating for us all.

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  • Yes Emma, quite interesting. I am not sure about the smell of those type of books because I rarely came across one that did smell as you describe.
    Without a doubt this is a very informative story.

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  • Most definitely a place to be cherished, I just love the smell of books and would love to be able to visit my local Library again.

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  • I think libraries should continue. I think it is a fabulous place for school students. They have the internet,a couple of computers,lend movies,games,books, and someone there to assist if you have questions. They learn how to do research for papers and the proper way to notate where they got info for their paper. thanks for writing

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