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FRANK BECKWITH (Librarian, Leeds Library)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 1 March 1947



I that phenomenon so familiar to students of eighteenth‐century literature, the ‘circulating library’, has endured much comment, a little of it accurate, some of it ambiguous, a great deal of it uninformed. The chief obstacle to a proper appreciation of its influence is the absence of a proper definition of it; that given in the Oxford English Dictionary speaks the truth indeed, but not the whole truth, for within the category are to be included at least two major species which differ in toto. The first, the object of Sheridan's familiar but shallow witticism, will not be dealt with here in any detail: it was not unlike the modern ‘twopenny’ library, being a commercial venture dependent on individual management and catering for the immediate wants of a public largely uncritical and in search of passing entertainment. It is rather with the second type, the ‘proprietary’ library, that this paper is concerned, for although its aims, status, and administration were totally different from those of its humbler if more popular contemporary, this type was, and still is, designated ‘circulating’, if the Leeds Library be taken to represent it, as it assuredly does in every way. The relevant nomenclature for eighteenth‐century libraries is, in fact, not a little bewildering to the uninitiated: the Leeds Library has been known as ‘circulating’, ‘subscription’, and even ‘public’, while the Birmingham Library indenture of 1799 expressly names ‘the Public Library’; but the Cambridge University library, for example, was also known as ‘public’, like many other essentially ‘private’ collections, such as those parochial libraries which restricted the use of their treasures to the faithful and gave the parson the key. The distinction insisted on above will be found roughly to correspond with that made by the older local historians, who generally deign to notice, however meagrely, the local ‘proprietary’ institution, but do not, as a rule, condescend to mention the mere commercial venture, a distinction made so pointed in a judgement of exquisite gentility by the excellent Mr. Horsfield of Lewes, to be quoted hereafter, that it is worthy to become classic. Most of them are mentioned by S. Lewis in his great Topographical dictionary, and they are generally styled ‘subscription’ libraries.


BECKWITH, F. (1947), "THE EIGHTEENTH‐CENTURY PROPRIETARY LIBRARY IN ENGLAND", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 3 No. 2, pp. 81-98.




Copyright © 1947, MCB UP Limited

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