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Book History 5 (2002) 19-38

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Adults Only?
Children and Children's Books in British Circulating Libraries, 1748-1848

M. O. Grenby

The question of whether circulating libraries in their late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century heyday catered for children has not received any sustained investigation. This is regrettable because the question has a bearing on our understanding of both circulating libraries and children's literature. Were circulating libraries designed for the use of the whole family, or constructed as places of purely adult resort, reserved for putatively sophisticated, "adult" literary pursuits? Were the circulating libraries the direct forebears of the modern public lending libraries, which include a children's section almost as a sine qua non and which allow children to become members in their own right? And did circulating libraries play as significant a role in the development of children's literature as in the rise of the novel? After all, these two literary forms developed virtually in parallel, both rising from mid-eighteenth-century foundations to become securely established by 1800.

The prima facie evidence is mixed. Pictorial representations often depict family groups using circulating libraries. Naturally, these groups frequently include children. 1 Their use of circulating libraries is substantiated by some of the criticism of these institutions. Robert Wodrow, in his famous lament about the corrupting effect of Allan Ramsay's Edinburgh library, regrets [End Page 19] that "young boyes" were among those reading the library's "villainous profane and obscene books and playes." 2 Another fairly representative adversary deplored the fact that "the young of both sexes too frequently suffer a depravation of morals as well as of taste, from the indiscriminate reading of common circulating libraries." 3 Exactly how old these "young" people were must remain a matter of speculation, and these critics may have been indulging in a little hyperbole so as to deepen their invective. In any case, Wodrow and his allies were inveighing against children gaining access to adult books. Whether children would have been able to find a literature of their own in circulating libraries initially seems doubtful. Certainly, that curious pamphlet The Use of Circulating Libraries Considered; with Instructions for Opening and Conducting a Library, either upon a Large or a Small Plan (1797), which exists in a solitary copy in the Bodleian Library, suggests not. Here, divinity, biography, anecdotes, travel, poetry, plays, science, and novels all found a place among the fifteen hundred volumes recommended for a reasonable circulating library, but there was no suggestion that children's books should accompany them. 4 The standard historians of libraries tend to agree. Hilda M. Hamlyn and Devendra P. Varma, still the main sources on circulating libraries, do not mention children's books. 5 Alec Ellis, in his history Library Services for Young People in England and Wales, states simply, "Very few library facilities were available to most children prior to 1850." 6 The judgment of F. J. Harvey Darton, the founder of children's literary history, remains largely unchallenged: even the libraries established after the Public Library Act of 1850, he wrote, "played nothing like the part where children's books are concerned that . . . the circulating libraries did for adult books." 7

This is a judgment initially confirmed by the most obvious source, the surviving catalogues of the libraries. Of more than fifty catalogues of separate circulating libraries, dating from 1748 to 1848, that were consulted, only a very few include more than a handful of children's books. As a rule, the catalogues contain less than one percent children's literature, although various methodological problems preclude a definitive figure. There is, for example, the problem of spotting children's titles that may lurk among as many as ten thousand often uncategorized titles in a single catalogue, and to recognize every one, it would also be necessary to know the title of every children's book published in the century after 1748. Furthermore, there was a substantial crossover between adult and juvenile books. Many novels, as James Raven has acknowledged, are "close kin" to...


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