Opening up a copy of La Bruyere’s Characters for cataloguing, I discovered this fascinating label on the front pastedown listing the “Conditions to be observed and consented to by every subscriber, &c. to William & George North’s Circulating Library, Brecknock, (to which this book belongs.)”
The circulating library first appeared during the 1700s when booksellers began to rent out extra copies of the books they held. Books were still very expensive to buy and few people could afford them, however subscribers to a circulating library could, for a small annual fee, gain access to a wealth of novels, plays, and other popular reading material. The great success of the circulating library was closely linked to the increasing popularity of novels, which proved to be the perfect items for libraries to lend – they were read for enjoyment, rather than as a scholarly pursuit, so they could be read quickly and returned to the library, ensuring a rapid turnover of stock.
Some libraries also lent books to non-subscribers on a pay-per-book basis; William & George North apparently charged according to format, from four-pence for a pocket-sized duodecimo up to three shillings for a large folio. Subscribers to the library were permitted to borrow one new book for up to three days or any other book for a week, and the Conditions… suggest that heavy fines were imposed on those who kept books too long.
While circulating libraries helped to make books accessible to more people at an affordable price, there were still those who frowned upon them. As early as 1728, Robert Woodrow wrote in disgust that “all the villanous, profane, and obscene books and playes printed at London [are] lent out … for an easy price”, and opposition to the circulating library was still so widespread in the 19th century that Mudie’s Select Library was driven to reassure patrons of its sound moral values by refusing to stock “novels of objectionable character or inferior quality”!