A circulating library (also known as lending libraries and rental libraries) were first and foremost a business. The intent was to profit from letting the public borrow books for a fee.
It is complicated to precisely define circulating libraries and specifically what separates them from other types of libraries. In the time period that circulating libraries existed there were other libraries that operated in a similar fashion but were not the same such as subscription libraries. However when both types of libraries were commonplace, the terms circulating libraries and subscription libraries “were completely interchangeable." It was logical that they were considered to be the same since both libraries circulated books and charged a subscription fee. The libraries differed in their intent. Circulating libraries’ intent was financial gain, and subscription libraries intended to obtain literary and scholarly works to share with others.
Circulating libraries were popular in the 18th and 19th century and were located in large and small communities. Usually they were operated out of stores that sold other items such as newspapers and books. Sometimes they were in stores that sold items completely unrelated to books. The fees were for long periods of time such ranging from several months to a year. Eventually the fees changed to daily rates to try to entice customers in some libraries.
One difference between circulating libraries and other libraries was that their collection changed as according to what the public wanted, which led to larger collections of fiction. When circulation decreased, the books were sold. Another difference was the customers were often female. These factors contributed to the popularity of circulating libraries.
Early circulating libraries
Criticism of circulating libraries and novels
The late 18th century was when novels became commonplace. The demand for novels was high but the cost of them made them inaccessible for many. They held wide appeal because they were less complex than more scholarly types of literature. However novels were not greeted with an overwhelmingly popular reception.
Aspects of novels were realistic, which made them appealing and relatable. The elements of novels that made them sensational and alluring were the parts that deviated from what would usually happen in reality. Society feared that people, mainly women, would not be able to differentiate between the realistic and completely fictional elements. Basically the argument against novels was that it would cause people to have unrealistic expectations of life.
Circulating libraries were highly criticized at the height of their popularity for being providers of novels. The views about novels and their readers, sellers, and writers went beyond simple criticism to being slanderous. Much of the information known about criticism of novels comes from a variety of public and privately written sources.
Some circulating libraries were publishers although many did not have widespread distribution for the works they printed. By the end of the 18th century, they had increased the amount of fiction they published. They favored publishing works from women whereas other publishers still favored works by men.
It was common for people to publish their works anonymously. Circulating library publishers were known for publishing anonymous works, and it is believed that many of the ones they published were written by women. Circulating library publishers were not viewed as favorably as other major publishers since they printed works that were considered unsavory by society. People may have wanted their works to be anonymous to avoid the stigma of being associated with a publishers with a poor reputation.
By the beginning of the 20th century the ways people procured books had changed, and circulating libraries were no longer the favored way of obtaining books. The biggest contributor to the downfall of circulating libraries was reduced prices of books. This made books more accessible to the public and made them less reliant on circulating libraries. In an attempt to compensate for the loss of revenue, the subscription fees were lessened to daily rates down from monthly or yearly ones.
Circulating libraries were still common into the early 20th century. During World War II was when they came to an end in the US and England. By this time, modern public libraries had become commonplace, which contributed to the downfall of circulating libraries. Another contributing factor was the introduction of paperback books, which were less expensive to purchase.
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