Earlier this year, I read Random Recollections of an Old Publisher by William Tinsley, London,
1900. It was a revelation to me that a publisher’s most significant client base prior to the
twentieth century were Subscription/Circulating Libraries. I’ll just use subscription to refer to both
in this musing – only slight differences. Only the wealthy could afford to by books for their own
library. The average three-volume novel, a future Musing perhaps, cost a guinea in 1815,
roughly the equivalent of $100 today and therefore so many fewer people could afford to buy
books then now.
A subscription library is a library that is financed by private funds either from membership fees
or endowments. They started in the seventeenth century in Britain and in North America the
Library Company of Philadelphia was started in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin.
Subscription libraries often specialized in a particular area of focus, such as law, medicine,
religion, philosophy and fiction. Some were focused on trades and were hosted by various
“mechanics institutes”. In Canada, the Atwater Library of the Mechanics Institute of Montreal,
founded in 1828, still exists.
Subscription libraries were used primarily by members of the middle and upper classes who had
both money and leisure time. Since these libraries did charge a fee, an individual had to have
enough money to become a subscriber. Subscriptions often were based upon the number of
books to be borrowed at one time. These libraries were popular as social destinations.
Subscription libraries typically paid publishers about 50% of the retail price for a book. Fines for
the late return of a book were often substantial.
The first free public library in the world was the Peterborough New Hampshire Town Library
which was founded at a town meeting on April 9, 1833. Boston’s Public Library was the second
established in 1852.
With the advent of free public libraries primarily in the second half of the nineteenth century,
most subscription libraries were replaced or taken over by the governing authorities.