In celebration of the opening of the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library later this spring, Nancy Spiegel, the Library’s bibliographer for art and cinema, is writing a series of posts about the history of libraries and library architecture. This is the sixth post in the series.
The increase and spread of popular literature—magazines, newspapers and novels—in the late 18th and early 19th centuries led to the development of circulating, or rental libraries. These were established by booksellers looking to augment their retail sales activities, but were also found in stationery and candy stores or even barber shops. In contrast to the content of subscription libraries of the same era, which focused on scholarly materials intended mainly for the upper classes, circulating libraries served the general reading interests of ordinary people.
Readers in a circulating library could, for a small fee, access a wide selection of popular reading materials. Printed catalogs and newspaper ads often served as marketing tools to pique readers’ interests. By the mid-19th century, circulating libraries were present in most large cities in Europe and the Unites States. Mudie’s Select Library in London operated from 1842 until the 1930s, and at its height of popularity boasted an inventory of over 1 million titles. At the same time, Mudie’s Catalogue of New and Standard Works reassured patrons of its sound moral values by refusing to stock “Novels of objectionable character or inferior quality.”
Circulating libraries began to decline in the early 20th century as public libraries devoted more shelf space to popular fiction and offered service for free. The paperback book, introduced in the 1930s, offered readers another attractive and inexpensive alternative.
Image from “Going to Mudie’s,” London Society. 16:95 (November 1869): 445-448.