Types of Libraries

A prevailing theme seems to be appearing on this blog, which is about our interest in categorisation and classification! Along with thinking through how to categorise both books and borrowers, we’ve also needed to do some reflecting on how to classify the types of libraries involved in our study.

Our initial breakdown of the libraries from which our 16 sets of borrowers’ registers are drawn is fairly straightforward. In our Content Management System (CMS), they are classified as Institutional, Subscription, or Other. And this works perfectly well for the purposes for which this classification is needed in the CMS. But of course, in reality, this is not as simple as it seems. Even basic dichotomies such as public/private, or paying/free, and seemingly uncomplicated categories such as Institutional, begin to break down under the pressure of historical evidence, and anyone who has been involved in research into library history in the past 50 years will know that other classifications (such as subscription vs circulating libraries) are equally complicated, and practices within the institutions not necessarily cut-and-dried.

Let’s begin, though, with a list of the types of libraries current in our period (1750-1830):

  • Circulating Libraries
  • Subscription Libraries
  • Associational Libraries
  • Institutional Libraries
  • Private Libraries
  • Public Libraries

It is once we begin to try to define these categories that it becomes immediately obvious that there is a substantial degree of crossover between them.

Circulating Libraries

As the Oxford Encyclopaedia of Literature correctly defines them, circulating libraries were ‘commercial enterprises that rented books to patrons, typically for an annual or quarterly fee. Developing out of informal arrangements for renting books by a handful of booksellers during the later seventeenth century, these businesses flourished from the 1740s (when the term “circulating library” and trade practices became standard) into the mid-twentieth century. Circulating libraries played a major role in creating the modern popular culture of reading, in part by making books affordable to a wider spectrum of the public, but more importantly by increasing the number of books any single reader could afford to read. Between the 1740s and 1840s circulating libraries also contributed significantly to the production of books, with proprietors of the largest libraries consistently ranking among the most prolific publishers of their day, especially when it came to novels’. (‘Circulating Libraries’, Oxford Encyclopaedia of Literature, ed David Kastan (Oxford: OUP, 2006), online version available at https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195169218.001.0001/acref-9780195169218-e-0102)

Ladies select books at a circulating library.
A Circulating Library

Subscription Libraries

Subscription libraries operated similarly, in that they charged an annual fee, but they were not normally commercial ventures. Instead, the subscribers usually paid not only their annual subscription (which allowed them to borrow books) but often also an entrance fee to possess a share in the library; the shareholders owned the library, chose the books, and typically ran the library themselves. This definition is taken from K.A. Manley, Books, Borrowers, and Shareholders: Scottish Circulating and Subscription Libraries before 1825 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Bibliographical Society in Association with the National Library of Scotland, 2012), p. 1. Books could be dispersed to individual members at the end of the year, or kept to form an expanding collection over the years, and subscription libraries varied enormously in size, from small reading societies, such as the one to which Jane Austen belonged in Chawton, to grand and wonderful institutions such as the Liverpool Athenaeum.

Subscription Library manuscript
A Subscription Library: Leighton MS 25: Leighton Library Matriculation Book, in which the names of the subscribers are entered, and the rules outlined. Photograph © the author, by kind permission of the Trustees of the Leighton Library.

Associational Libraries

This term is often used synonymously for a subscription library – i.e. for any library where an association of people come together – but it also has a more specialised sense. While a subscription library might theoretically exist independently from any other institution or association, an associational library, as the name suggests, could pertain to a particular association, club or society, such as a mechanics’ institute or a Miners’ Society (such as those at Leadhills, Wanlockhead or Westerkirk. The term is most often used in the existing literature to refer to libraries created by members of the labouring classes, and ‘associationalism’ as a term very often refers to a particular type of civic politics.

A page from the Westerkirk Kalendar.
An Associational Library: A page from the Westerkirk ‘Kalendar’. Courtesy of Westerkirk Parish Library.

Institutional Libraries

This leads us on to Institutional Libraries, where the crossover with both subscription and associational libraries will probably by now be clear, since the difference between an institution and an association is not necessarily always clear-cut. It’s also probably wise to subdivide this category further, since institutions are as many as they are various. The main types of institutional libraries that retain records from our period are educational – i.e. universities, colleges, schools, and religious, such as churches, cathedrals, monasteries and nunneries. Some subscription and associational libraries can also be considered institutional libraries – the Advocates Library would be a case in point, since this operated as a subscription library but was associated with an institution (the Faculty of Advocates).

An Institutional Library: King James Library, University of St Andrews, founded in 1612.
An Institutional Library: King James Library, University of St Andrews, founded in 1612.

Private Libraries

Private Libraries – then, as now – simply designate a collection (or collections) of books owned by an individual, or a family. It’s important to remember that private libraries can range from the vast scale of the Royal Collections and other famous collections, such as that of the Earl of Bute, or Pemberley’s Mr Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice, to a single shelf owned by a tradesman. But the term is, in its way, somewhat misleading, since private libraries in our period often had an element of the public – as discussed in my earlier blog on the records of Craigston Castle, generous book owners would often lend out books not only to friends and family members, but sometimes to members of the wider community. Private libraries might, then, sometimes be private in terms of their ownership, but more public with regards to their readership.

18th century private library
A Private Library: Jacques Le Roy, [D’Eon in his Study](c. 1775). Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University. Quite apart from its lovely depiction of an eighteenth-century private library, this picture holds an inherent interest, in that the Chevalier D’Eon was one of the most celebrated characters in eighteenth-century Britain. D’Eon lived in London from 1762-1777 as a man, and from 1786-1810 as a woman. During both these periods d’Eon was a noted figure in international politics, high society and popular culture. https://www.npg.org.uk/research/new-research-on-the-collection/the-chevalier-deon.php

Public Libraries

Public libraries, as we think of them now – that is, as lending libraries where books are made freely available to any member of the public – really did not exist in our period (with one or two notable exceptions, of which our partner library The Library of Innerpeffray is a proud example). The term public library was used indiscriminately in the period to mean circulating or subscription libraries, and it was not until 1850 that the Public Libraries Act enabled Town Councils to establish free public libraries in England. In 1853, this was extended to Scotland and Wales. In the period, therefore, the term ‘public library’ does not designate a free lending library, instead being used mainly to differentiate libraries with paying members from private library collections.

Drawing of Edinburgh Central Library
A Free Public Library: Edinburgh Central Library, founded in 1890

As we continue to find out more about our own partner libraries, it is fascinating to see how often these distinctions blur in practice, with libraries that are, at first glance, only for the use of a particular membership in fact often opening themselves out to a wider public. St Andrews University Library’s registers, for example, contain the records of ‘Town’ borrowers – those not in fact attached to the University, but still able to borrow. The Leighton Library’s ‘Water Drinkers’ register is another case in point.