Early Providence Circulating Libraries

One sometimes controversial forerunner of public libraries in the 19th century were so-called “circulating libraries,” which were often owned by printers, booksellers, or stationers, who thus created a market for the various genres which were pouring from the presses at the time. According to Richard Wendorf, “circulating libraries were often criticized for the shallowness and moral laxity of their book stock and customers, and it is clear that they often catered to the frivolous and to the less educated. Some books, it was alleged, were ‘written solely for the use of the circulating library, and very proper to debauch all young women who are still un-debauched’.”
In the Rhode Island Collection we have an 1833 catalogue of Foster’s Circulating Library, located at 49 Westminster Street, opposite the Arcade. Boasting 4,000 volumes, this subscription library offered yearly memberships for $6, half-yearly for $3.50, quarterly for $2.00, or monthly for $1. This would allow you to check out four duodecimos or two octavos at a time. New books were ordered in multiple copies, and could only be checked out for one or two weeks (the normal term was probably monthly). Subscribers were not to loan books to others, and according to article 5: “Books must not be defaced by critical remarks.”

Also in the Rhode Island Collection we have an 1854 catalogue of Perrin’s Circulating Library (“formerly Dana’s”), which was run by Daniel Perrin, bookseller and stationer, at 177 Westminster Street. A year’s subscription cost $3, or you could pay for six months ($1.75) or three months ($1). Only one book at a time was lent, for a period of four weeks. According to the front matter, “this library, which has been more than thirty years forming, is composed of the best works published during that time, and now forms a rare and valuable collection . . . We have for sale a good assortment of School, Juvenile, Gift and Miscellaneous Books, Paper, envelopes, etc. at very low prices.” Perrin also sold “family bibles in plain and rich bindings, juvenile and toy books of all kinds, and alphabets on blocks for children.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.