In 1904, my great-great-grandfather (Max) mailed my great-great-grandmother (Rose) a birthday present. He was traveling at the time, and my family is fortunate enough to have his letters to her from that time. In his letter, he told her that he’d given her a library book.
On its surface, that seems like just about the saddest birthday present someone could ever give someone else—“Hey, saw this, thought of you—bring it back in two weeks okay?”
Luckily, that’s not exactly what happened. What Max actually gave Rose was a subscription to a circulating library called the Tabard Inn Library. The idea was similar to Little Free Libraries today, except that it wasn’t free. The circulating libraries had little branches in public places. The Tabard Inn libraries required you to pay a small fee to exchange a book. (I think Max paid $1.50). It was cheaper than buying new books. At the time, novels were just starting to become easier for the public to buy, but they were still expensive.
Circulating libraries, because they carried fewer books than a regular library, were able to reflect public demand a little better than other libraries of the time. Specifically, they had novels. They were also among the first kinds of libraries to actively seek out the patronage of women, and branches were often located in milliner’s shops or midwives’ offices.
The Tabard Inn Library was ill-fated. Seymour Eaton created them in 1902, and they went out of business in 1905. They were widely popular, but heavy demand and not enough funds forced Eaton to declare bankruptcy. On a side note, Eaton coined the term “Teddy Bear” while writing under the pen name Paul Piper. So that’s pretty cool.
As time went on, it became possible to mass produce paperback books. This made the books cheaper to buy than a subscription to a circulating library. Around the same time, modern free public libraries became more popular, and the need for the circulating libraries just wasn’t there anymore.
Personally, I take my free public library totally for granted. It’s hard to remember that not everyone has access to one. Every time I hear the story that once upon a time, a library book could be a birthday present, I laugh. But really, what an ingenious gift—yes, at first, it’s one book. But down the line, it can be an almost endless supply of reading.