I've moved bookishwhimsy.com to tumblr! This blog is now an archive of my past posts.


Monday, March 17, 2014

The Refined Reader (1) Circulating Libraries

Posted by Charlene // Tags: ,

Welcome to the first post of my new feature!  The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!

In my post last week on creating new features, I mentioned what this post would be about - the Circulating Library of the Victorian era.  Although it seems to have started in the early 1700s but gained more popularity in the 1800s.  Since books were expensive at the time it was necessary and lucrative for publishers and enterprising individuals to offer subscriptions to readers to borrow books.  Through this the three-volume novel became popular (for reasons I'll get into later) so that meant a novel - Jane Eyre for instance - was printed up as three books about 200-300 pages each and the reader would have to go to the library to get the next part.  According to this site a three-volume novel would have cost the equivalent of $100 in our time!  I should stop complaining about the price of books now... although at current hardcover rates our equivalent of a three volume novel - a trilogy - would be about $60 for the set.  Maybe not a lot has changed.

Click on image to read the (funny?) text of this comic from 1877 
Charles Edward Mudie was a successful businessman of the Victorian era whose lending library was so successful that he started making demands of publishers, impacting the publishing industry.  Mudie wanted the novel split into three so he could lend one book to more people.  He could get more mileage out of it basically.  And for the publishers, that priced the book much higher and meant less people could actually buy it.  So that the publishers depended more on Mudie and other lending libraries to buy large quantities of their books to add to a library's stock, thus giving the circulating libraries more power.  At the time, novels in America were published as one volume and were considerably cheaper, but the English public became used to the new format and did not want to pick up a whole book as one volume (this is crazy to me) however much the publishers wanted to later change the system.

This format also affected the way novels were written by English authors at the time.  The pace and structure had to adapt to being broken up into three parts, and the story needed to be spun out for a prescribed amount of chapters.   The three-volume novel isn't exactly the same as a trilogy but to my mind there are a lot of similarities especially when it comes to goals for marketing and maximizing profit.  In fact The Lord of the Rings was intended by Tolkien to be a three-volume novel and not a trilogy but his publishers wanted to release it as three books and give each book a name.

It seems the consensus that the popularity of the circulating library came to an end when affordable public libraries came into existence.  And thank goodness for that.  It makes me want to go out and visit my local library right now in appreciation!

How often do you visit your local library?  How do you feel about trilogies?  

Sources:
British Circulating Libraries
Jane Austen's World
Wikipedia / Wikipedia
The Victorian Web

Share this post: Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Email This Pin This Share on Google Plus Share on Tumblr
Scroll Up

22 comments:

  1. This was such an interesting read! I definitely knew that books like Jane Eyre were published in volumes because when I read classics I would see Volume I, II and so on. But to know that the British were insistent on not changing them to a single volume sounds all kinds of crazy.

    I love going to the library, we have a great library system here so I could definitely substitute not buying books with going to the library instead (although for new releases there's like a 3 month wait). It's also the main reason why I haven't read a lot of the books I already own! Haha. I'm pretty neutral about trilogies now, I admit I don't like starting series but I guess now I feel less of a pressure to continue the series if I didn't like the first book.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is crazy! It makes me wonder about the reading habits of these people back then, it must have been much more leisurely if they didn't mind needing to take a break to pick up the next volume!

      I'm glad your library tries to keep up with new releases, even though 3 months seems way too long for me. :D I feel the same about trilogies - it's nice if I really love the book to know that there is more coming, but I'm also wary of the time investment before I pick up that first book. I definitely won't pick up the next book if I didn't like the first one, but if I didn't like the second one, I might just finish the series.

      Delete
  2. Ohh, that was really interesting. No wonder a lot of classics seem to drag on and on by today's standards.

    I never go to the library because we don't have any remotely close. :( It's a tragedy. I lived in a place with a fantastic library for about nine months and that was awesome. It's probably the only thing I miss about that place. I don't have any big feelings regarding trilogies, though I prefer trilogies (or series in general, since my favourite trilogy is getting an additional prequel soon) where the books could be read as standalones. If a long time goes by between reading two parts of a trilogy (or series) I don't really enjoy having to scramble back to a review or wikipedia to remember all the relevant details before I can open the newest addition.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's very true - I always thought classics were just written in a way to really build up the characters, but now I'm thinking it's probably just to maintain a certain length.

      Aww, I'm sorry to hear you don't have any libraries near by! I agree completely that trilogies with standalone stories in each book are much more satisfying. I feel like it's kinda cheating to leave a book with a major cliffhanger and no resolution - it feels like they purposely chopped up the book to fit a trilogy.

      Delete
  3. Love your banner for this.. and second this is incredibly interesting.. It would drive me nuts though to go to the library and have to go back bc the book was broken into three parts. Its part of the reason I try to read a trilogy all at once so I dont have to stop!

    our last library was amazing and huge. We live in a smaller area so the library is smaller but it is part of a tri-system so we can go to the other two libraries as well and do interlibrary loan anywhere in the state..

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! I wanted it to look a little bit like the top of a newspaper. :) I know what you mean, It's so hard to imagine why the people at that time didn't want the convenience of reading a whole book at once!

      I wish I had a beautiful and huge library near me! I'd probably spend a lot more time there!

      Delete
  4. I love this new feature! This post was so interesting; I have a hard enough time waiting to get three whole books in a trilogy at my library, I can't imagine having one novel like Jane Eyre divided up into three parts!

    Alice @ Alice in Readerland

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! Actually yes - I just thought of that - having to wait for each part of Jane Eyre would be a particular torture to me! But yes, it's so strange that people would not want that convenience!

      Delete
  5. You know, I never really thought about the history of libraries so this is really interesting! I am so glad that book prices have changed a little... my gosh.

    I always knew that The Lord of the Rings was in fact one book split into three parts and not a trilogy (or rather, it's seen that way even though 'officially' it's three books, as you say - but I mean Tolkien's vision of it), but I didn't really know why until now - thanks for teaching me that! ;D

    Lovely new feature, Charlene =)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm planning to research more on the history of public libraries so that's more info coming up! :)

      I actually didn't know about The Lord of the Rings being one book before reading about it for this, and I was surprised! Especially because three volume novels were so outdated by the time he wrote the book. But either way it was released it's still a fantastic story so it doesn't really matter.

      Thanks for stopping by Rinn!

      Delete
  6. This is an awesome new feature! I loved reading about the "tactics" of splitting a story into three volumes. ;) Haha! Reading about the old libraries, and seeing how things have changed, is a lovely thing to think about. I used to visit my library a lot, but since I've been working on clearing my ereader, I haven't gone in a while.

    Also I never dress as nicely as the lady in the photo when I go the library. :P

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is nice that public libraries came into existence to help give the lower class access to books. I think - I'm going to delve into that more for a future post. And to be honest, I am the same - it's been awhile since I've visited my library - I have so many books I need to read at home!

      LOL, same for me, but I should change that - books deserve to be dressed up for! ;)

      Delete
  7. I love how enterprising publishers were even back then, lol. I sometimes get series fatigue, especially when reading YA, knowing that I'm typically signing up for at least 3 books and have to wait until the last installment for resolution. This is such an interesting and informative post; can't wait to read the next one!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, they were pretty resourceful! And it seems like these techniques still work! Oh "series fatigue" is a great word for it, I'll have to remember that next time - it describes my feelings about it perfectly. It's usually the thought of getting into a another series that is daunting, I mostly enjoy being able to read three books about something I really like.

      Thank you! I hope you'll continue to find them interesting!

      Delete
  8. Fascinating thoughts!
    I am confused on one thing: did people have to pay to use a circulating library? Or how did it differ from a 'regular' library that we know today??
    Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes they did have to pay a subscription fee - like Netflix for us now. Free public libraries were the reason circulating libraries sort of went out of business. Thank you for stopping by! :)

      Delete
  9. I am finally reading this post!! I have been looking forward to it. Honestly it is surprising how much a book would cost. It seems like you would have to be a person of wealth to read back then. You couldn't just be the average person. Love this feature!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, reading was more for the upper/middle classes back then which was a pity! Definitely public libraries are an improvement on that system. Thank you Angie, I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

      Delete
  10. Aww, yay! I love this so much! I feel so smart and informed now. :)

    I've heard of circulating libraries but I guess I always figured they were like our modern library system. And I guess I also thought that by the Victorian era books were much cheaper than that! The idea that novels had to be written in a style conducive to the three-volume system makes me wonder if that's really brought about the trilogy idea. I figure there were series before that, but I just wonder. :)

    I visit the public library pretty often, though I find myself getting more books from the friends of the library store than checking them out (probably because there's no time constraint!)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yay, I'm happy to share the knowledge! It is really amazing how expensive books were back then - I mean, I guess it must have cost a lot to print, but I didn't really think people put a lot of effort into buying books regularly so it seemed like they would have to lower prices to make any profit.

      Oh I always look at the used books for sale in the library too! Sometimes you can come across some really great book editions!

      Delete
  11. That Charles Edward Mudie fellow was quite a clever one. Haha. And $100 for three volumes? No wonder they rather used those circulating libraries. I've heard about them before too, but didn't know books were that pricey in the Victorian era. And I totally understand not wanting the whole book as one volume, esp. if it's a huge classic. And I actually own quite a few books that are split into volumes.

    To answer your questions, I use the library quite a lot, and prefer standalones to series/trilogies. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh actually since you put it that way - that having a large volume is too unwieldy - I guess I can understand why they might not want to carry the full volume at the time. And I suppose printing at the time meant thicker paper and board covers, so it would not have been a light book.

      I do find it much easier to pick up a standalone because I know I won't have to invest so much time to it!

      Delete