October 2018 meeting: Subscription and Circulating Libraries

Portico Library

Portico Library, Mosley St, Manchester, by Stephen Richards, via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.0

This month’s discussion was inspired by member Anna’s recent visit to the Portico Library in Manchester, England. It was built in 1806 as a subscription library, and still operates as such.

Wikipedia describes its establishment as follows:

[It] was established as a result of a meeting of Manchester businessmen in 1802 which resolved to found an “institute uniting the advantages of a newsroom and a library”. A visit by four of the men to the Athenaeum in Liverpool inspired them to achieve a similar institution in Manchester. Money was raised through 400 subscriptions from Manchester men and the library opened in 1806.

Subscription vs Circulating Libraries

As always, we had carried out research in preparation for the meeting, but most of us had soon become bemused by the terms “subscription” and “circulating”. Some of our sources seemed to use these interchangeably, but it gradually became clear that they are, in fact, different “types” of libraries, with somewhat different purposes and users.

Both these libraries were, however, precursors to free public libraries as we know them today, albeit there was at least one significant freely accessible library in Britain by this time, Manchester’ Chetham’s Library.

Subscription Libraries

Also called membership libraries or independent libraries, these were established and financed by private funds either from membership fees or endowments. Access to them was traditionally restricted to members, but access rights could also be given to non-members, such as students.

These libraries developed with the increased interest and availability of secular literature in the 18th century, and often grew out of small, private book clubs – and were usually the province of men. They charged annual fees or required members to purchase shares, and used this money to build their collections and later create their own publications. These sorts of libraries starting appearing in England by the mid-late 17th century. Benjamin Franklin established a similar library in Philadelphia in 1731.

Subscription library collections tended to be “serious”, covering areas such as biography, history, philosophy, theology, and travel, rather than fiction (or novels.) Their aim was self-improvement.

According to Wikipedia, 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 that would be mutually beneficial to the shareholders/subscribers.

Circulating Libraries

Like “subscription” libraries, circulating made books available to readers for a price. The difference lies in their establishment and intent. Circulating libraries were established by businesses – by publishers, for example, or by retailers – so their goal was financial gain, while subscription libraries’ aimed more at the self-improvement desired by their shareholders or subscribers. Indeed, James Raven notes that the success of publishers relied to some degree on “the success of their own circulating libraries.”

Circulating libraries were, however, important cultural institutions in Britain and America during the nineteenth century, because they provided the rising middle class access to a wide range of reading material, including poetry, plays, histories, biography, philosophy, travels, and especially fiction which was increasing in popularity. Users of circulating libraries could “subscribe” for a set period (such as three months, or a year) or they could pay per use (which was helpful on holidays.)

The difference in intent – and audience – was reflected in their collections. Their commercial goals meant circulating libraries more closely reflected public demand, resulting in larger collections of fiction. James Creighton’s Circulating Library in Covent Garden advertised itself in 1808 as offering “Rational Entertainment In the Time of Rainy Weather, Long Evenings and Leisure Hours”. Jean Gates writes that in the USA social (subscription) libraries were about self-improvement, while circulating libraries, were more about making money, so entertainment tended to drive the collections.

Another difference was that their customers were often female. Circulating libraries were the first to serve women and actively seek out their patronage. It was not coincidence that some of these libraries were located in millinery and stationery stores and midwives’ offices.

Richard Cronin writes that Emma was published by the gentleman publisher John Murray, whose publications differed from the kind of novel published by AK Newman (Minerva Press) which were “priced at five shillings, and sold almost exclusively to circulating libraries.” Apparently, too, circulating libraries influenced book publishers to keep producing multi-volume books – because they charged per volume – instead of the single-volume format.

Libraries and reading habits

We discussed the role libraries played in reading practice and habits. We wondered where Jane Austen’s characters got their books from – like Anne Elliot and the Dashwood sisters? It’s not always clarified.

Regarding the use of circulating libraries by women, we noted that they gave women autonomy of choice, that is, they could choose their own reading rather than have their father choose for them.

However, not everyone, our research uncovered, approved of circulating libraries. The Rev Edward Mangin (1808) disapproved of circulating libraries). They encouraged careless use of books. Novels, he thought, were alright for occasional relaxation but they encouraged, particularly in the daughters of gentlemen and tradesmen “false expectations about the nature of the world and their place in it” (Abigail Williams). The poet Coleridge thought these libraries encouraged sloth; they lent out trashy novels which offered nothing better than “laziness” and “mawkish sensibility” (Janet Ruth Heller).

One member brought along a short excerpt from Sheridan’s play The rivals (1775) (Act 1 Sc II), which resulted in an impromptu play-reading. Mrs Malaprop and Sir Anthony discuss niece Lydia, and on Mrs Malaprop’s calling her an “intricate little hussy”, Sir Anthony replies that “It is not to be wondered at, Ma’am–all this is the natural consequence of teaching girls to read ….” The scene continues:

Sir ANTHONY: In my way hither, Mrs. Malaprop, I observed your niece’s maid coming forth from a circulating library!—She had a book in each hand—they were half-bound volumes, with marble covers!—From that moment I guessed how full of duty I should see her mistress!

Mrs. MALAPROP: Those are vile places, indeed!

Sir ANTHONY: Madam, a circulating library in a town is as an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge! It blossoms through the year!—And depend on it, Mrs. Malaprop, that they who are so fond of handling the leaves, will long for the fruit at last.

Poet Robert Burns (1791), by comparison, was not impressed by the tastes of his Scottish subscription library, the Monkland Friendly Society Library, which he co-founded with Robert Riddell. He wanted secular works, including the novels of Fielding, Smollet and Cervantes, but they wanted religious/devotional Calvinist literature, which he described in a letter to a bookseller as “damned trash” (Introduction to the The Oxford edition of the works of Robert Burns.)

Our member wondered whether Sir Edward Denham’s comment to Charlotte in Sanditon was an ironic allusion to Burns:

“You may perceive what has been our Occupation. My Sister wanted my Counsel in the selection of some books. — We have many leisure hours, & read a great deal. — I am no indiscriminate Novel-Reader. The mere Trash of the common Circulating Library, I hold in the highest contempt.”

Richard Cronin says that Sir Walter Scott divided novels into two groups  – “the ephemeral productions which supply the regular demand of watering-places and circulating libraries” and those, like Emma, which were “exalted and decorated by the higher exertions of genius.” He makes a distinction between readable novels (you get from circulating libraries) and rereadable novels (you buy) and says that Austen judged the best novels as being those that survive rereading.

Jane Austen herself, then, was a user of libraries. In this letter to Cassandra, December 18, 1798 she conveys the prevailing attitude regarding novels and such libraries:

I have received a very civil note from Mrs Martin, requesting my name as a subscriber to her library which opens January 14 and my name, or rather yours, is accordingly given. My mother finds the money… as an inducement to subscribe, Mrs Martin tells me that her collection is not to consist only of novels but of every kind of literature. She might have spared this pretension of our family who are great novel readers and not ashamed of being so: but it was necessary, I suppose, to the self consequence of half her subscribers.

In this letter to Cassandra, 24 Jan, 1813, the “Society” is presumably a subscription library:

We are quite run over with books. She [her mother] has got Sir John Carr’s Travels in Spain from Miss B. & I am reading a Society octavo, an Essay on the Military Police & Institutions of the British Empire by Capt* Pasley of the Engineers, a book which I protested against at first, but which upon trial I find delightfully written & highly entertaining. I am as much in love with the author as ever I was with Clarkson or Buchanan, or even the two Mr* Smiths of the city-the first soldier I ever sighed for-but he does write with extraordinary force & spirit.

And in this letter to Fanny, 30 Nov 1814, she comments on the impact of borrowing on authors:

People are more ready to borrow & praise, than to buy – which I cannot wonder at; – but tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too.-I hope he continues careful of his eyes & finds the good effect of it.

Libraries in Jane Austen’s novels

We shared references to libraries in Austen, which indicate not only her awareness of them but of attitudes to them. More fun though is that, as we’d expect from our Jane, they are rarely mentioned unless to offer some commentary on character.

Pride and prejudice

Lydia and Kitty are attracted to Meryton’s circulating library because of the officers frequent them – and, Mr Collins, when asked to read

readily assented and a book was produced; but on beholding it, (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library) he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels.

Mansfield Park

Fanny in Portsmouth, no longer having access to her uncle’s library, wants books:

There were none in her father’s house; but wealth is luxurious and daring, and some of hers found its way to a circulating library. She became a subscriber; amazed at being anything in propria persona, amazed at her own doings in every way, to be a renter, a chuser of books! And to be having any one’s improvement in view in her choice! But so it was. Susan had read nothing, and Fanny longed to give her a share in her own first pleasures, and inspire a taste for the biography and poetry which she delighted in herself.)

Alan Richardson quotes this passage to support his argument that libraries (versus the home library) “represented the threat of promiscuous reading and individual autonomy of choice.”


Mary Musgrove, staying in Lyme Regis, to “look after” Louisa:

Mary had had her evils; but upon the whole, as was evident by her staying so long, she had found more to enjoy than to suffer. … there had been so much going on every day, there had been so many walks between their lodgings and the Harvilles, and she had got books from the library, and changed them so often, that the balance had certainly been much in favour of Lyme. She had been taken to Charmouth too, and she had bathed, and she had gone to church, and there were a great many more people to look at in the church at Lyme than at Uppercross; and all this, joined to the sense of being so very useful, had made really an agreeable fortnight.

A lovely ironic comment on Mary!

Northanger Abbey

Henry Tilney to Catherine and Eleanor, being his teasing, superior, self:

“… The confusion there is scandalous. Miss Morland has been talking of nothing more dreadful than a new publication which is shortly to come out, in three duodecimo volumes, two hundred and seventy–six pages in each, with a frontispiece to the first, of two tombstones and a lantern — do you understand? And you, Miss Morland — my stupid sister has mistaken all your clearest expressions. You talked of expected horrors in London — and instead of instantly conceiving, as any rational creature would have done, that such words could relate only to a circulating library, ..”


Charlotte was to… buy new Parasols, new gloves, and new brooches for her sisters and herself at the library, which Mr P was anxiously wishing to support.

An example of a circulating library which did more than provide books.


  • Richard Cronin, “Literary scene” in Janet Todd, Jane Austen in context
  • Jean Gates, Introduction to librarianship
  • Going to the Library in Georgian London (Mar 1, 2015), Jane Austen’s London (blog)
  • Janet Ruth Heller, Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and the reader of drama
  • The Oxford edition of the works of Robert Burns
  • James Raven, “Book production” in Janet Todd, Jane Austen in context
  • Alan Richardson, “Reading practices” in Janet Todd, Jane Austen in context
  • Abigail Williams, The social life of books: Reading together in the eighteenth-century home

Business, etc

The meeting ended with our usual quotes, and a discussion about venues for our annual Christmas/Jane’s birthday party, with Rodney’s Cafe and Bookplate being frontrunners.

One Response to October 2018 meeting: Subscription and Circulating Libraries

  1. […] Subscription and Circulating Libraries, JASACT (Jane Austen and All That – In Canberra), October 2018 meeting. Accessed October 4, 2020. https://jasact.wordpress.com/2018/11/07/october-2018-meeting-subscription-and-circulation-libraries/ […]

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