A subscription library (also membership library or independent library) is a library that is financed by private funds either from membership fees or endowments. Unlike a public library, access is often restricted to members, but access rights can also be given to non-members, such as students.
In the 18th century, there were virtually no public libraries in the sense in which we now understand the term i.e. libraries provided from public funds and freely accessible to all. Only one important library in Britain, namely Chetham's Library in Manchester, was fully and freely accessible to the public. However, during the century, there came into being a whole network of library provision on a private or institutional basis.
The increase in secular literature at this time encouraged the establishment of commercial subscription libraries. Many small, private book clubs evolved into subscription libraries, charging high annual fees or requiring subscribing members to purchase shares in the libraries. Unlike a public library, access was often restricted to members. Some of the earliest such institutions were founded in late 17th century England, such as Chetham's Library in 1653, Innerpeffray Library in 1680 and Thomas Plume's Library in 1704. In the American colonies, the Library Company of Philadelphia was started in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, PA.
Subscription libraries were democratic in nature; created by and for communities of local subscribers who aimed to establish permanent collections of books and reading materials, rather than selling their collections annually as the circulating libraries tended to do, in order to raise funds to support their other commercial interests. Even though the subscription libraries were often founded by reading societies, committees, elected by the subscribers, chose books for the collection that were general, rather than aimed at a particular religious, political or professional group. The books selected for the collection were chosen because they would be mutually beneficial to the shareholders. The committee also selected the librarians who would manage the circulation of materials.
Subscription libraries were also referred to as 'proprietary' libraries due to the expectation that subscribers not only pay an annual fee, but that they must also invest in shares in the subscription library. These shares may be transferred by sale, gift or bequest. Many could not afford to purchase shares to become a member of a subscription library, even though they may have belonged to reading clubs.
The increasing production and demand for fiction promoted by rising literacy rates and the expansion of commercial markets, led to the rise of circulating libraries, which met a need that subscription libraries did not fulfil.
William Bathoe opened his commercial venture at two locations in London in 1737, and claimed to have been 'the Original Circulating library'. An early circulating library may even have been established in the mid 17th century; in an edition of "Tom Tyler and his Wife" in 1661 Francis Kirkman included a catalogue of 690 plays which he claimed to be ready to lend "upon reasonable considerations" from his premises in Westminster.
Circulating libraries also charged subscription fees to users and offered serious subject matter as well as the popular novels, thus the difficulty in clearly distinguishing circulating from subscription libraries. Occasionally subscription libraries called themselves 'circulating libraries', and vice versa.
"Many ordinary circulating libraries might call themselves 'subscription' libraries because they charged a subscription, while the earliest private subscription libraries, such as Leeds, Warrington, or Liverpool, describe themselves as 'circulating' libraries in their titles. Since many circulating libraries called themselves after the town where they were situated, it is often difficult to distinguish the type of a particular library, especially since many are only known to posterity from a surviving book label, with nothing but the name as identification".
In Britain there were more than 200 commercial circulating libraries open in 1800, more than twice the number of subscription and private proprietary libraries that were operating at the same time. Many proprietors pandered to the most fashionable clientele, making much ado about the sort of shop they offered, the lush interiors, plenty of room and long hours of service. "These 'libraries' would be called rental collections today."
With the advent of free public libraries in the 19th century, most subscription libraries were replaced or taken over by the governing authorities.
"These societies are voluntary associations of men and women who have come together because they are interested in the aims and objects which the societies serve and they feel that they can pursue those interests better as members of a society, rather than as individuals. The libraries therefore have been collected together for the purpose of serving the objects to which the various societies are dedicated and they do this, for the most part, by serving their members".
Learned society libraries were private libraries, but were owned by larger groups of people. Furthermore, materials were often lent or borrowed by qualified individuals or institutions outside the society itself. Societies were concerned mainly with the sciences, physical and biological and often cooperated with other groups like the Royal Society.
Exclusive subscription libraries, the oldest one in the world being the Chemical Society in London, was founded in 1841 for the general advancement of chemistry. The primary objective of the society was to guide and direct original research in chemistry and to disseminate that knowledge through debates, lectures and its own Journal.
Current membership libraries
- 1653: Chetham's Library
- 1680: Innerpeffray Library
- 1704: Thomas Plume's Library
- 1741: The Leadhills Miners' Library
- 1768: Leeds library
- 1788: Linen Hall Library
- 1793: The Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne
- 1793: Westerkirk Parish Library
- 1797: The Athenaeum (Liverpool)
- 1799: Tavistock Subscription Library
- 1800: Langholm Library
- 1806: Portico Library
- 1810: Plymouth Proprietary Library
- 1812: Plymouth Athenaeum Library
- 1813: Devon and Exeter Institution
- 1816: Nottingham Subscription Library
- 1818: Morrab Library
- 1824: Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution
- 1824: Ipswich Institute Reading Room and Library
- 1832: Bradford Mechanics' Institute Library
- 1832: Saffron Walden Town Library Society
- 1834: Guildford Institute of the University of Surrey
- 1839: Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution
- 1841: London Library
- 1854: Birmingham and Midland Institute
- 1889: Saint Deiniol's Residential Library
- 1894: Bishopsgate Institute
- 1912: Armitt Library
- 1928: Sybil Campbell Library
United States of America
- 1731: Library Company of Philadelphia
- 1747: Redwood Library and Athenaeum
- 1748: Charleston Library Society
- 1753: Providence Athenaeum
- 1754: New York Society Library
- 1795: Lexington (Kentucky) Library Society
- 1804: Social Law Library
- 1807: Boston Athenaeum
- 1810: Salem Athenaeum
- 1814: Athenaeum of Philadelphia
- 1816: New Orleans Library Society
- 1817: Portsmouth Athenaeum
- 1820: General Society Library of New York City
- 1820: Maine Charitable Mechanics Association Library of Portland
- 1820: New York Mercantile Library
- 1826: The Institute Library (New Haven)
- 1835: Mercantile Library of Cincinnati
- 1846: St. Louis Mercantile Library Association
- 1854: San Francisco Mechanics' Institute
- 1890: Lanier Library Association (Lanier Library of North Carolina)
- 1899: Athenaeum Music & Arts Library of La Jolla
- 1999: John Trigg Ester Library
- 2015: Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum 
Republic of Ireland
- 1922: Central Catholic Library
- Kelly, Thomas (1966); p. 185
- Forster, Geoffrey, and Alan Bell. "The subscription libraries and their members." The Cambridge History Of Libraries In Britain And Ireland. 3 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 147-148.
- Raven, James. "Libraries for sociability: the advance of subscription library." The Cambridge History Of Libraries In Britain And Ireland. 3 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 251.
- John Feltham. "Circulating Libraries". Picture of London, for 1807 (8th ed.). London: Richard Phillips.
- Eliot, Simon. "Circulating libraries in the Victorian age and after." The Cambridge History Of Libraries In Britain And Ireland. 3 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 125-126.
- Manley, K.A. "Booksellers, peruke-makers, and rabbit-merchants: the growth of circulating libraries in the eighteenth century." Libraries and the Book Trade: The formation of collections from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. Ed. Myers. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2000, p. 39.
- Michael H. Harris (1995), History of libraries in the western world, Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press, ISBN 081082972X
- Vernon, K. D. C. "Learned Society Libraries." The Libraries of London; ed. Irwin. London: The Library Association, 1961, p. 242.
- "Libraries: Proprietary and Subscription Libraries", Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th ed.), New York: Encyclopaedia Britannica Co., 1910, OCLC 14782424