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Book History








Circulating library catalogs offer one of the most revealing views available of book publishing and reading in eighteenth-century Britain, since those catalogs and the libraries they document were put together by book traders whose livelihood depended upon giving an unprecedentedly wide range of British readers the books they wanted. Of course, the perspective on eighteenth-century British book culture provided by their catalogs is nowhere near as comprehensive as the Eighteenth-Century Short Title Catalog (ESTC) or the recently published first volume of The English Novel 1770– 1829: A Bibliographical Survey of Prose Fiction Published in the British Isles (TEN), which “seeks to list all novels of the period whether or not surviving in extant copies, their publication and pricing details, and contemporary review information.” As James Raven’s “Historical Introduction” to TEN (15–121) testifies, such comprehensive bibliographies allow for unprecedentedly authoritative insights into a vast array of issues, ranging from broad facts (such as which titles were most often reprinted) to details (such as relations between individual publishers and printers). Yet we need to remember that retrospective bibliographies, however comprehensive, cannot sufficiently represent book culture as a living culture, with complex local variations and behavioral peculiarities. By contrast, precisely because circulating library catalogs and the libraries they bespeak were put together at specific times by specific traders for readers in specific places, they capture the lived particularity of book culture better than probably any other source. This essay seeks to illustrate the value of balancing comprehensive, retrospective bibliographies and statistics with more localized sources like circulating library catalogs by setting TEN alongside an analysis of the works of fiction listed in the catalogs of Thomas Lowndes (London, c. 1766) and Michael Heavisides (Darlington, 1790). The libraries of both Lowndes and Heavisides endured for more than thirty years, so presumably they were vital enough parts of their local cultures to represent their relations to books with relative accuracy. Yet these libraries also represent two distinct aspects of the circulating library institution, differing in the scale, composition, location, date, and relative stability of their enterprises.

Original Publication Citation

Jacobs, E.H. (2003). Eighteenth-century British circulating libraries and cultural book history. Book History, 6(1), 1-22. doi: 10.1353/bh.2004.0010