Lending library

I think I have established, on several occasions, that I am the heart of disorganised darkness.

They don’t come more disorganised than me and sane. I straddle the borderline between the undisciplined and the unhinged, which is why I am always amazed that librarians do not see me coming.

But they don’t. It shouldn’t be allowed, there should be a law against someone with my previous convictions walking into a library, taking a choice volume from the shelves, and walking off with it.

Because within six months I will be in deep financial water, up to the top of my flowery wellies in library fines, gazing down the barrel of a bill for lost books.

I am fatalistic: it is fate, this inability to keep track of my slack borrowings.

I will not, here, shame myself publicly by totting up the fines I have accrued over the years. Because librarians are the epitome of democratic, reasonable people, they are almost godlike in their ability to forgive, seventy times seven.

And so I still, occasionally, slink into the local branch of affably staffed fustian volumery, and try not to look shifty as I eye the shelves with intent.

Now Maddie is becoming insistent. She loves the atmosphere of the place, and she has a perfectly good ticket from the days when we used to riffle through the picture books together. I cannot escape my fate, this literary sword of Damocles, which hangs unassuming over my head.

The subject bubbled to the surface irrepressibly as Mad and I were sat reading Pride and Prejudice last night. We were at that bit where Mr Collins, who is to inherit Elizabeth Bennet’s house after her father dies, comes to stay. One conversation with Mr Bennet is enough to convince the latter that the vicar is absurd. He settles back to enjoy the theatre: and mercilessly invites him to read aloud to the ladies..

The Vicar pounces on the idea, right up until the moment that a book is produced, when he starts back: because “everything about it announced it to be from a circulating library”.

Apparently it is a novel, and Mr Collins does not read novels.He prefers ‘books of a serious stamp’. He settles for Fordyce’s Sermons.

These days libraries in the UK are full of books of a serious stamp. The library is a bookish retreat, a municipal goldmine of information, fiction and non fiction, internet access and so much more.

But it has not always been so, if Mr Collins is to be believed. Once, the circulating library  – distant forerunner of the local repositories of today – was a bastion of bad influences.

For evidence, look no further than Sheridan.

Ah, what a playwright: one after my own heart. The wicked humour in the play The Rivals, which got the young Sheridan and his new wife out of a sticky financial hole, rendered the first night a retrospective dry run.

After a restive audience heckled and even threw apples at the actors, Sheridan did what any respectable bums-on-seats-writer would do: took the script away and rewrote it in response to the audience’s criticisms. The show must go on: and this play quickly became a sensation with the people, the royal family and audiences across continents.

It’s a wonderful tale, the very heart of which is a young noblewoman’s obsession with romantic novels. Her soul mate is readily available in a comfortably arranged marriage: but she would rather have a penniless romantic hero.

Of course, due to a little light deception, they are, unbeknown to her, one and the same.

Very early on in the proceedings Sir Anthony Absolute, the hero’s father, expresses his concerns about the new lending libraries which seem to be springing up everywhere. He tells the comical Mrs Malaprop, the damsel-in-question’s guardian: “A circulating library in a town is an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge! It blossoms through the year! – and depend upon it, Mrs Malaprop, that they who are so fond of handling the leaves, will long for the fruit at last!”

Libraries were actually seen as collections which corrupted the morals of the young and the poor. The devil’s work.

Back there in the 1600s, the lending of books developed much as have today’s video and DVD rental stores.

In those days, according to Dr Robert Clarke, of the University of East Anglia, books were expensive to buy, so bookshops would charge a lending fee and allow readers to take and return a book for a small fee. Gradually the booksellers began to build up stocks of books for rent as well as those for sale.

Scottish poet Allan Ramsay rented books from his shop in Edinburgh in 1725: and from that moment the trend began to grow. By the 1740s there were at least three circulating libraries in London.

Borrowing made sense: a small book, Clarke estimates, would have cost as much as a sturdy pair of breeches. And a novel set one back the cost of two or three shillings – a month’s supply of tea and sugar for a family of six.

So the libraries thrived. And this had a very interesting side-effect for writers.

Libraries, it seemed, created a whole world of demand for new literature. In the 1720’s just six fiction titles were produced each year in Britain. By the 1800s British readers were enjoying around 70 new titles. And this was happening even though the price of fiction trebled between 1780 and 1820.

For the first time it became a going concern, this writing lark. Libraries caused prices to rise and the number of titles to shoot up. The price of each volume meant a writer could make a tidy sum through their words.

And who was foremost in this popular trend for the novel?

The women, of course. Female readers fuelled a revolution and brought a host of female writers to the fore. One must wonder whether Austen, or the Brontes, might have had the same opportunities for publication 100 years before when just six works of fiction made it to the printing presses.

So our mild-mannered lending libraries are rather like Superman. They occasionally don Clarke Kent glasses, and dowdy clothes.

But they have a steamy past worthy of a superhero. And they are also responsible for bringing a whole gender one step further towards recognition: they brought the words of a generation of insanely talented women to the fore.

What a lot we must thank them for.


29 thoughts on “Lending library

  1. You need to consider that you are contributing to a magnificent charitable cause, Kate.
    Make out that you deliberately go over the time to support your local branch!
    Love Dad

  2. Those libraries are so at risk currently.
    Did you hear of the campaign where borrowers were encouraged to take out their full quota of books as a protest?

    We have an excellent library service in Oxfordshire, but I tend not to use it much at this stage of life, though I did a great deal when the boys were small.
    The large print books, the computer use, the DVD loans etc. are all extensions of what a library started out as, and give open access to so many who would otherwise not have this.

    I agree with Kate’s Dad. We mustn’t let them fade away.

    1. You’re so right, Pseu. Did you see the latest trend here is to hand over libraries to volunteers to run? Not sure what I feel about that. It keeps them open, but the state needs to see that reading- making books available to the masses- is still its responsibility. Even with cuts…

    1. Another fine accruer. This is becoming very cosy for me, although multiply your fine by 10 and think of a very large number and add it on, and you may just get to my worst ever fine…they are great. Looks like I’m going back soon 🙂

      1. Maybe it’s through fines that they’ll be able to afford to keep all the libraries open? I encourage you to build up fines every now and then 🙂 hahaha

  3. What an advance the Dewey Decimal System and the card catalog was! I envy college students today because they have access to books form all over the world from which to glean their research. When I did my MA paper in 1979-1980 on the New England Puritans in the mid 1600’s, I had only about a dozen and a half sources. This is because I live in Miami, Florida which does not have any relationship with those times in that area of the country. Had I lived in Massachusetts or a surrounding state, I would have had access to thousands of sources. Today the internet provides all this at the comfort of your desk in your own home. This ability, the micro wave and the ATM card are the most wonderful advances of the age in which we live.

    1. Well said, Carl, and so true. The “information highway” is really that, isn’t it, and to think, this has all happened in a generation. Your witty comments always give me a chuckle – and, yes, make me think.

    2. Totally agree, Carl: though there are some sources which still remain stubbornly away from the net…next project is a deep delve into history, and i think it’s going to need The British Library to help it. It’s apparently overcrowded so I’ll have to bring a camping stool!

  4. What a wonderful post . . . and I, myself, with me and moi, sit here knowing I slipped my last lot of books late into the overnight drive-up bin and will have to pay the piper in a day or two when I sneak back inside.

    As we wring our hands at the the doomsday warnings of what will happen to books, your words here give me a little hope, Kate. There is a change about, for sure, in how books are read and I, for one, prefer to hold the actual paper in my own hands rather than a device with a screen, but, the important thing is that people are still reading, books are still being written, and perhaps I need to settle on the fact that in the end, the fact is that more people are reading than one might suspect.

    1. It does help to know that libraries make jobs for writers, I find, Penny. When I think of the huge variety of books I have read and loved, the vast majority of them novels which would have scandalised Mr Collins, I see how much scope there is for us to write something which will end up on those shelves. There’s an aspiration 🙂

    1. That’s an excellent point, Sidey. Who knows how the net will change things…I have found with Kindle that I can get books cheaply if not free (Karl Marx is free everyone!) on Kindle and so I have no need to borrow a book. Ordering a title through the library takes a while and so I go for Amazon instead. And no fines when I forget to return it. But I want our libraries there: books are some of the most potent symbols of freedom, and the right to speak, aren’t they?

  5. It has been years since I’ve been to the library. Not since I first moved to this city and checked out the main branch. Which is a shame as I used to spend hours and hours there as a kid and as a student. Until you wrote this, I didn’t even realise how much I missed it.

    I think I shall add “get a library card” to my life list.

  6. I like everything about libraries apart from the bit at the end when you are supposed to take the book back. As you know, for me the collecting of the books is almost as important as the reading of them. People often ask me why I keep all of the books that I have read, and I can’t really come up with a good answer – just couldn’t bear to be parted from them!

    1. I know that feeling, Miff. Just occasionally I have borrowed one which I hated to part with at the end – The Interpretation of Murder, by Jed Rubenfeld, and The American Boy, by Andrew Taylor, for two. At that time I can only scramble to Amazon to out in an order as soon as possible…

  7. The day we got our Florida licenses, we headed straight around to the library to get our library cards. We borrow books, movies, and CD’s, and we’ve attended lectures on Architecture, the Environement, etc..

    I had no idea that lending libraries started out as “houses of ill repute.” I’d read those lines in Pride and Prejudice without considering their historical import. Shame on me.

    Thanks, Kate.

    1. The lines have always eluded me, Nancy – it was reading the story out loud to Maddie, with all the explanation that requires, that made it jump out at me! Reading aloud to one’s kids is good for the soul…

  8. My hometown shares a border with location of the very first public library in America, named Franklin after — you guessed it — Benjamin Franklin who donated the startup books. And feel free to share some disorganization with me. I rearrange the pile of books I currently have on loan almost daily, numerically, alphabetically, by size, by color, by thickness, by weight.

  9. Thanks for the interesting history and thought-provoking post, Kate. I haven’t tapped into ebooks much yet, also preferring the feel of pages….our great-granchildren will probably laugh about that one day 🙂

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