Provincial Libraries in the Eighteenth Century


Former Circulating Library, Milsom Street, Bath

The protagonists in both the series of historical mysteries I have written are members of a new force in eighteenth-century British society: ‘persons of the middling sort’ or members of the professional and mercantile middle classes. Mr Ashmole Foxe is a wealthy bookseller and property owner; Dr Adam Bascom is a physician and younger son of a member of the minor gentry. The middle classes were important at this time for many reasons. Their prosperity was growing, as were their numbers, making them increasingly important in political and economic terms. Indeed, by the end of the century, some of them were far wealthier than many of the lesser landed gentry — and even some of the less affluent nobility. Agricultural land, the principal source of income for the latter two groups, no longer paid as well as it once did, even with the effect of newer patterns of agriculture.

The main difference between these prosperous merchants and professionals and the landed gentry and nobility lay in the fact that they worked for a living. They did not rely on inherited, landed wealth — hard to increase and easily lost. They also lived in — and were broadly tied to — urban settings. That was where their businesses and professional practices lay and they had to pay constant attention to them as the source of their wealth. The gentry and nobility still divided their time between London and their country estates, with occasional visits to fashionable ‘watering places’ such as Bath.

However, like their ‘betters’ and unlike those below them, the middle classes were beginning to have a significant amount of time — and appetite — for leisure activities. Those also needed to be available where many of the middle classes lived, in Britain’s burgeoning provincial towns and manufacturing centres.

Booksellers and Newspapers

Booksellers were well established in many provincial centres by the end of the seventeenth century. Since books were expensive and sales turnover consequently low, most supplemented their trade in other ways. The most common of these was printing and distributing pamphlets. Another was the production of a local newspaper. Norwich had its first newspaper (it was the first outside London too) in 1701. Books were heavily advertised in these newspapers, not least because the newspaper publisher and bookseller were often one and the same. It was therefore possible in some areas for books to be ordered and delivered by the men who travelled outside provincial centres, carrying newspapers and pamphlets to small towns and villages.

It was now a small step from selling books to renting them out. This seems to have been the basis on which many commercial libraries began.

Circulating, Subscription and other Libraries

Nomenclature is confused on the topic of early libraries. You shouldn’t imagine that the neat typology I am setting out here was always reflected in real life. Some libraries would come under more than one of these categories. However, for the purposes of explanation, I will consider them separately.

Circulating libraries came closest to the idea of renting books. They were almost entirely linked to booksellers and set up with a clear commercial purpose: to provide for the many readers, especially those desiring the new category of novels, whose appetite for books would otherwise have soon outrun their budgets. The most basic approach was to borrow a book at a set amount per week, payable when the book was returned. Other circulating libraries, perhaps to help with the cost of continually purchasing new volumes, also charged a small monthly or annual subscription.

Subscription libraries proper were set up by various philanthropic or civic societies formed for that purpose. They tended to cater for more serious tastes in reading and might even have their own premises, offering a reading room in which members could consult volumes without further charge. Subscription levels tended, however, to be quite substantial, which restricted their use to the upper levels of society. In Norwich, both charitable societies, such as the Society of United Friars, and scientific societies, such as the Natural History Society and the Norwich Botanical Society, established such libraries for their members. The debating and philosophical societies, such as the Speculative Society and Tusculan Society, both dating from the 1790s, also had substantial libraries, including many books that would be seen as controversial.

A subset of subscription libraries contains those libraries set up by learned societies or similar organisations as an offshoot or adjunct to their main activities. This might include diocesan libraries, expressly catering to the needs of the clergy; libraries associated with philosophical and scientific societies (as noted above); music libraries and libraries designed for use by members of the medical and legal professions. In all cases, membership was restricted to those who had already been accepted into the relevant group or society. If any additional subscription was charged for access to the library, this was normally set aside to help pay for new books.

Reading Groups

It might surprise you to know that book clubs and reading groups were also around at this time. Most were set up by groups of gentlemen — it was nearly always gentlemen — to help share the cost of books. These groups would meet in a private house, or sometimes a coffeehouse, or even an inn. They might charge an entrance fee, often quite a substantial one, followed by an annual subscription, all of which was used to purchase books to be passed around amongst the members. Meeting to discuss what they had been reading was not universal, but it was quite common. At the end of each year, that year’s books — probably quite dogeared by now — were sold off to help defray the cost of new ones. People also passed books around amongst their friends, of course, but these reading groups were far more formal than that.


As provincial towns grew and prospered, their wealthier citizens and civic fathers began to see the provision of certain leisure facilities as an essential sign their town should now be counted as an important centre of culture and learning, as well as a growing manufacturing or commercial base. It’s probably fair to say that the provision of Assembly Rooms and a purpose-built theatre — both in place in Norwich by the 1750s — were top of their agenda. However, libraries also played no small part in helping to extend the cultural life of the provincial town.

Not surprisingly, not everyone welcomed them. One Scottish clergyman, the Rev Robert Wodrow, responded to the provision of a library in Edinburgh with the claim that:

“All the villainous, profane and obscene books and plays printed in London, [were being] lent out to young boys, servant women of the better sort and gentlemen, and vice and obscenity dreadfully propagated.”

(Libraries and their Users, Paul Kaufman, London: Libraries Association, 1969)

He was probably not alone in his view. By contributing to the spread of knowledge and literacy, libraries helped to initiate social change, breaking the stranglehold on learning which the elite had held for so long. Events soon showed, as in the case of Thomas Paine, that books could be a force for subversion as much as prosperity. The genie was out of the bottle and could not be returned.

About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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