Nicola here! On Saturday I went to Shoreham-by-Sea to give a talk in celebration of National Libraries Day. It was a wonderful occasion to be surrounded by fellow library fans, have afternoon tea and cake and talk about books, writing and history. Public libraries are so hugely important. The library has always played a big part in my life and in the development of my love of reading and writing. I can remember as a teenager taking the bus a few miles down the road to our closest local library at Oakwood in Leeds where I scoured the shelves to feed my appetite for historical fiction. Our school library was in a grand old building that looked as though it came straight out of a historical novel itself.
Libraries in the UK are under threat as never before from cuts to local government spending. Some have closed down, others have cut back their opening hours and some have had to make cuts in their stock and the facilities they provide. None of this feels like a good thing. These days, libraries provide so much to the communities they serve. It’s not just about the books – though if it was that would still be good enough! Libraries have so many different purposes, contributing to culture and the community. To lose them would be a tragedy.
The Circulating Library
Whilst there were public libraries centuries ago in societies such as ancient Greece, the public library in the UK sprang out of
Victorian ideals. Prior to the Victorian era there were monastery libraries, private collections and University libraries. The circulating libraries that feature in many historical novels sprang up in the eighteenth century. Allan Ramsay opened the first circulating library in Edinburgh in 1725 quickly followed by the first one in England in 1728. These were also known as lending libraries or rental libraries and as the name implies, they were not free. The intention of the owner of a circulating library was to profit from letting the public borrow books for a fee.
By the early nineteenth century the growing literacy of the population meant that there were large numbers of readers who wanted to read new material but could not necessarily afford the price of new books. Many circulating libraries were castigated for providing sensationalist novels to a female readership. This was part of the prejudice against romance novels and “women’s fiction” that started centuries ago and still persists today. 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. Georgian and Victorian society feared that people – mainly women and the comparatively ill-educated – would not be able to differentiate between fiction and reality. The argument against novels was that it would cause people to have unrealistic expectations of life. Unfortunately this argument is depressingly familiar to those of us who read and write romance today. This simplistic criticism was far from the truth. For a start, many circulating libraries were created for scientific and literary purposes as well as to provide all kinds of fiction, and those not necessarily “sensationalist” at all. Where there were "sensationalist" novels, these were popular across a variety of genres – Gothic novels, crime novels, Western fiction, and many others.
The subscription fee to a circulating library could be high but was cheaper than buying new books. One of the great benefits of the circulating library was that it rented out bestsellers in large numbers, which enabled publishers to increase both readership and earnings. There were circulating libraries in many communities across the UK and US by the nineteenth century. Often they would be situated within a bookshop or newsagent although sometimes they could be found within a shop that had no connection to books, such as a haberdashers shop. Madhatter Bookshop in Burford is a modern day example of this and it’s a great idea and a great shop! Books could be borrowed on long tem loan from the circulating library although eventually the borrowing period was shortened to encourage people to visit more often and spend more money.
Mudie’s Circulating Library, founded in 1842, sent boxes of books all over the country to its subscribers. Other borrowing facilities were found at railway station bookstalls, which also sold reading matter for consuming on journeys.
The nineteenth century was also the era of the village Reading Room. Practically every village in England had one where villagers could go to read the daily and local newspapers they provided or, if they were illiterate, hear them read aloud. From these modest beginnings the reading rooms started to provide other entertainment: a Bagatelle table, card tables, dominoes, billiards, concerts and even dances. Alcohol was strictly prohibited. Whilst circulating libraries had had a large female readership the reading rooms were usually the preserve of the working man, and women were only invited for special occasions. The reading room also provided a small selection of books and frequently became an alternative hub for village social life alongside the pub.
The Public Library
In 1850 the Public Libraries Act was brought in. This gave local boroughs the power to establish free public libraries. This was a reflection of the moral, social and educative concerns of the era. The middle classes wanted to ensure that workers’ free time was well spent; reformers felt that encouraging the lower classes to spend their free time on morally approved activities such as reading would promote social benefits. And so we come to 1852 and the first public library, when a man became the first person in England to borrow a book. The library, in Campfield, Manchester was the first library funded by public rates. It was opened by Charles Dickens and William Thackeray! From that day to this, the public library has been vibrant and developing part of the community, now open to everyone, male or female, whatever their background and choice of reading material. This is worth celebrating every day, not just on National Libraries Day, and surely worth saving.
How do you feel about libraries? What are your memories of them? Do you have a favourite one?