- A Nation of Readers: The Lending Library in Georgian England
The last few years have seen a spate of epic studies of print culture in the British Enlightenment. William St. Clair, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (Cambridge University Press, 2004), Vic Gatrell, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London (Atlantic Books, 2006), Richard B. Sher, The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Ireland and America (University of Chicago Press, 2006), and James Raven, The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Book Trade 1450–1850 (Yale University Press, 2007) have all in their very different ways shed new light on the period and far beyond it, too. A Nation of Readers, which may at first appear to be on a more modest scale, is in actuality a companion piece to David Allan's larger work, Making British Culture: English Readers and the Scottish Enlightenment 1740–1830 (Routledge, 2008).
A Nation of Readers has the relatively contained ambition to explore the mechanisms by which readers in Georgian England could borrow books. It steps through [End Page 380] book clubs, subscription libraries, circulating libraries, and a range of other types of collections (parish and cathedral libraries, civic libraries, mechanics' institutes) that prefigured the institutions that we call public libraries. In the activities of the book clubs and subscription libraries, literacy emerges as a social act, a performance, a demonstration of engagement with culture and of acceptable attitudes toward it. Being seen to be active in the local book club or subscription library reinforced social standing. Though not all members of such associations were merely modish, there clearly was another dimension to literacy than that defined by the commonly articulated poles of instruction and amusement (a point that might carry over into discussions of the meanings and purpose of literacy in the world of Web 2.0).
Allan rules out of scope the university libraries, the Inns of Court, and the British Museum Library: the universities and the Inns of Court were highly exclusive ("in Georgian Oxford and Cambridge the libraries were principally for the use of teaching staff, and were not at this juncture even freely available to the student body" ), and their collections were not "replicated to any extent across the rest of the country" (212), including at the British Museum, so Allan argues that they are irrelevant to his core interest, the availability of books to the populace at large. The very existence of these exclusive collections, though, illustrates the relationship between power and print and contextualizes the social and political ambitions—"personal liberation and political awakening" (224), alongside simple clubbishness—that underpinned so many of the book clubs and subscription libraries.
The richness of Allan's book is in its recognition of the limits of empiricism. The most basic questions pose huge challenges.
• How many libraries were there? There is no standardized census data on circulating libraries, and the tendency of book clubs to develop into subscription libraries undermines any attempt to count them as either one or the other.
• How many people were active members? Even where membership lists and borrowing registers have survived, they are at best indicative. Many institutions appear to have allowed their members' immediate families to borrow. Unless they all kept detailed reading diaries, establishing who in any given household read what, let alone what they made of the books they read, is just not possible. Multiply that uncertainty over the hundreds of different institutions throughout the country.
• How big were their collections? Again, surviving catalogs are at best indicative. Circulating libraries would buy multiple copies of popular titles—in the case of runaway best sellers like Scott's Waverley novels, possibly several dozen.
• How affordable was membership? Yet again, the data become less meaningful the more they are investigated. Establishing what subscriptions meant in practical terms is no simple matter. There are numerous methods of translating values across time; all of them are as fraught as translating poetry...