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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: March 2008

12 - The subscription libraries and their members

from Part Two - The Voluntary Ethic: Libraries of our Own


It is remarkable that the 1849 report of the Select Committee on Public Libraries makes little reference to the vast number of subscription libraries that existed in Great Britain and Ireland by the middle of the nineteenth century. In the days before rate-supported public libraries, these libraries were a crucial source of reading matter for a significant proportion of the literate population. In a trade directory of 1853 for the West Riding of Yorkshire, no fewer than twenty-three libraries were listed for the town of Leeds – a town that was not to provide a rate-supported library until 1872. Of the libraries listed, fifteen were commercial circulating libraries. Two others held theological books (respectively ‘Catholic’ and ‘Methodist’, the former being described as a subscription library); the remaining six were all described as ‘subscription libraries’. Two had a specific professional interest (law and medicine), two were part of mechanics' institutes and two were ‘middle-class’ subscription libraries (Holbeck and Leeds). Even such a long list omitted several other subscription institutions providing libraries (for instance, those of the Philosophical and Literary Society, the Church Institute, the Literary Institute and the New Subscription Library).

Subscription libraries had emerged in significant numbers in the latter half of the eighteenth century, a more formal version of the book clubs or reading societies that had flourished during the same period. Like the reading societies, they were created by and for communities of local subscribers. Unlike the reading societies, subscription libraries tended to occupy separate premises rather than relying on the homes of their members and aimed to establish permanent collections rather than selling off their books annually.

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