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.
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!