Frequently Asked Questions about At the Circulating Library

What is a circulating library?

Circulating libraries were businesses that lent books to subscribers. The largest and most famous nineteenth-century circulating library was Mudie's Select Library, but there were dozen of such companies throughout the United Kingdom. Subscribers could join Mudie's, for instance, at prices beginning at one guinea (21s.) per year to borrow one book at time. For the price of less than one three-volume novel (31s. 6d.), a subscriber could potentially read an limited number of books.

What is a three-volume novel?

The three-volume novel (or triple-decker or library novel) was the prestige format for fiction throughout the nineteenth century. The price of one-and-half guineas (31s. 6d.) for a novel in three octavo volumes became standardized after the success of Walter Scott's novels in the 1820s. The high price largely limited the sale of three-volume novels to circulating libraries who rented them out to subscribers. Most nineteenth-century novelists wrote at least one three-volume novel.

Novels also appeared in two-volume editions and four-volume editions. However, the vast majority of Victorian fiction appeared in one-volume editions.

What is a pound? A shilling? A pence?

Prior to 1971, the United Kingdom used a non-decimal monetary system based on the pound (abbreviated ). Each pound was divided into 20 shillings (abbreviated s) and each shilling was divided into 12 pence (abbreviated d). Hence, one pound was 240 pence. One popular coin still in circulation in the nineteenth century was the guinea, which was one pound and one shilling (21s). For more information about relative values of the pound, visit Measuring Worth.

Where can I locate a copy of a title in your database?

In the United States, the largest collections of Victorian fiction are located at UCLA (the Sadleir collection) and the University of Texas (the Wolff collection), but nearly all research libraries hold some quantity of Victorian novels. In the United Kingdom, the largest collections are located at the British Library, Oxford University, Cambridge University, and the National Library of Scotland. Consult WorldCat (www.worldcat.org) to locate a copy. If you cannot easily visit a library, contact the library about making a photocopy if necessary (however, most charge for this service).

Unless a novel was reprinted, buying an affordable copy may be difficult. Consult Amazon or Abebooks (www.abebooks.com). Alternately, more and more novels are being added to Google Books (books.google.com)—check for a digital version.

I own a copy of a novel listed in your database. How much is it worth?

Consult a reputable rare book dealer or Abebooks (www.abebooks.com). Be sure to carefully note the publisher and publication date of your copy: generally, first editions in good condition command the most demand; later editions much less.

Why did you begin with two-, three-, and four-volume novels?

Because my research interests centered on the circulating libraries, I naturally wanted to know how many were published, who wrote them, and who published them. On a practical level, I began a database of Victorian fiction with three-volume novels because there were fewer of them—though at over 7500 titles it's more than a few! In catalogues they are generally easier to identify as well.

I would like to know how many women authors were born in 1834, or some other statistical question.

The underlying database is closed to the general public. But if you email your request to me, I can see what I can do to answer it. (By the way, eighteen authors were born in 1834, four of whom were women.)