How Libraries Changed the World for Women

How Libraries Changed the World for Women

C.A. Asbrey

At the beginning of the 19th century the average book cost around three shillings. For most families that was around a day’s wages, and around £20 in today’s money, around $20.26 USD. At a time when only around six percent of families had an annual income of £100 ($131.22) and only three percent earned £200 per annum ($262.44) who could afford to buy a book, let alone attend a play or an opera? And when they were purchased, it was most definitely done so with the approval of the wage earner – and that was rarely a woman.

Plays were cheaper. A family with a £200 annual income would have to spend nearly a full day’s income to buy a four-volume novel, but only 12 percent for a play. The market for playswas naturally much larger,which explains high copyright payments to playwrights and very low payments for most novels –  but that low pay meant that many men weren’t interested in that end of the market and left a gap for female writers.

And they rose to the challenge. Educated women had so few opportunities, but writing allowed them to work at home. Women like Jane Austin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Gaskell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Brontë sister, George Eliot, and Louisa May Alcott all found success, although some had to use male pseudonyms to be taken seriously and to protect themselves from social disgrace. The money made  difference to their own lives and freedoms, but what about their readers?

With wage-earning men buying most of the books how did the average woman go about getting her hands on her favourite books?

It’s hard to overestimate how much women’s lives changed in the 19th century. Previously women were not encouraged to read. It was seen as ruining both their minds and their morals. In much the same way as people complain about the young using iPhones and computers nowadays, novels were seen as a suspect medium, leading them astray and ruining them for the realities of life as wives and mothers. Young women were likely to be fuelled by a desire for excitement and romance, while older ones were likely to be exposed to the the negative influences through education, advice manuals, and social themes in fiction; which in turn would make them likely to challenge their fathers and husbands.

In a world where women previously didn’t read and couldn’t even communicate with friends in private, they were suddenly able to post letters to anyone they wanted without their parents reading them first and pop down t the local library to pick up a book of their own choice. The result was the start of a wave of social change which is still with us today.

So, where did they get these books? The answer is the start of public lending libraries, or as they were known, Circulating Libraries. Subscription Libraries were very similar but mostly worked for the public enlightenment where circulating libraries were run completely for profit.

These were primarily businesses which operated as an offshoot of bookshops. For a subscription the middle classes were able to borrow the latest book, return it and borrow another. The bookshop owner was able to make more from these subscriptions than they were in selling, but of course, readers could still purchase the novels they wanted to read over and over again.

They didn’t just cater for popular fiction either. Some specialised in science, languages, and literature.  Before long, these circulating libraries were found all over Europe, Great Britain, Canada, and the USA. They  rented out bestsellers in large numbers, allowing publishers and authors to increase their readership and increase their earnings, respectively. Publishers and circulating libraries became decreasingly dependent on each other in the nineteenth century for their mutual profit. Circulating libraries also influenced book publishers to keep producing expensive volume-based books instead of a single-volume format. However, when bestselling fiction titles went out of fashion quickly, many circulating libraries were left with inventory they could neither sell nor rent out. This led to a need for a different business model for libraries.

Circulating libraries were mocked as feminine places of frivolity, in which women flaunted their pleasure in a vacuous leisure which men despised. Accordingly, they were looked down on by many and were situated in feminine places like milliners and stationary stores. The famous British chain WHSmith ran a library scheme from 1860, which lasted until 1961, when the library was taken over by Boots the Chemist, who also had a circulating library of their own. This, founded in 1898 and at one time to be found in 450 branches, continued until the last 121 disappeared in 1966.

Whilst it is true that the vast majority of circulating libraries specialised in the sensationalist end of the market, the impact on society cannot be underestimated, Women could finally have a window on the world beyond that dictated by their families. They could study, exchange ideas, look at the lives of other social classes in way which was previously proscribed.

When Jacob Bell and his colleagues in 1842 to set up the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain and ultimately achieved the passing into law of the first Pharmacy Act in that country in 1852, they omitted any mention of women in the small print. By default, this meant that women could study and pass the examinations using the books available from their local libraries, proving that they were as capable as men of grasing complex science and retaining vast quantities of information. It was a step towards women entering medicine.

Books like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin may seem saccharine today, but they reached people who previously never encountered the harshness of slavery. Other writers such as Charles Dickens influenced the public with a presentation of the depths of poverty and the disease suffered by people living in their own cities, but whom they never encountered. Sympathies were raised and with the common threat of infectious disease, communities were gradually mobilised to improve the structure of working lives, through reform of housing, working conditions, social insurance, and welfare. While the novelists’ motivations varied, some authors wrote explicitly to add their voices, often literally in public readings that followed publication, to the need for social reform, In turn, for the first time lives were reflected in novels written by working men and women. It was a century of ferment; reform and revolution were both possible.

Certain sectors of society still laugh at books which are primarily written by women, read by women, and marketed to women. It’s important to remember that this market helped to change 19th century – and in turn our present day – society. Yes, some are trivial and are read purely for enjoyment, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s important to remember that women reading books changed our world for the better.