Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 28 Jul 2016

The Boots Circulating Library

If you spend any time browsing around second-hand bookshops you are certain to come across cheaply bound, hardcover books, about the size of a paperback, with no paper jacket and a mysterious small hole drilled into the top edge of the spine. They are usually reprints of popular fiction from the first half of the twentieth century and have no value at all for booksellers who usually want to shift them on for next to nothing. Inside you might find a small sticker or stamp declaring it to be stock from the Boots Circulating Library.

When I first started buying books I found these volumes really unprepossessing, ugly things that I had no interest in. They did, however, leave me with a residual curiosity about their origin – what exactly was this circulating library and was the Boots in question the same as the chemist on the high street?

The answer to that question is, of course, yes. Hard as it is to imagine, there was a time when every branch of Boots across the country might have participated in a network of lending libraries for which borrowers paid a small subscription. To better understand this, it’s necessary to go back to the period before 1964 and consider how people who couldn’t afford to buy books got hold of their reading matter.

The circulating library can be considered to have existed from as early as the later 17th century but it was in the late 18th and 19th centuries that they flourished. The British Circulating Libraries website is a useful resource for understanding the way these libraries functioned and where they could be found. Although the subscription costs for these libraries was relatively low, the fact that there was a cost meant that their target audience was mostly middle class and would largely exclude the majority of working class readers who could not afford the subscription fee.

A number of these libraries were bigger and more successful than others – W.H. Smith, already a successful bookseller, and Mudies were key players in the market. The popularity of these libraries also had a significant impact on what was getting published and in what numbers. Many publishers ran their own circulating library and these networks would buy a significant proportion of any first print run of a new book that was deemed likely to be popular in the library. As a result, this guaranteed set of sales would significantly influence decisions about what was commissioned and what found its way into print.

As the 19th century turned into the 20th Florence Boot, wife of the founder of the business, Jessie, and avid champion of reading and the arts decided the time was right for the Boots empire to expand into the circulating library business. Interestingly, they started the business using second hand books but after a while decided to move to stocking books specially manufactured and bound for Boots. Hence these mysterious small volumes with the small hole in the spine. It turns out that this hole was there so the reader could tie their membership card to the book and use it as a bookmark. On the UsvTh3m website an article entitled  Did you know that, until the 1960s, Boots the Chemist was also a library? describes how the Boots system worked:

"Most attractively for people who travelled a lot, you could return the books toany branch, wherever you were in the country.

There were three subscription schemes, one for hiring On Demand, one for hiring new books and one cheaper version for hiring books already published.

Later a Pay As You Read scheme was introduced which, after a deposit was placed, charged 4d or 4 old pence a day for two days rental of new titles, or 3d per four days for older books."

The Boots libraries were, for some time, the most popular circulating library in the country and by the start of the 1960s it was beginning to take on some of the W.H.Smith libraries that were being abandoned by the news and stationery chain. But this proved to be their high water mark and by 1965 the network had shrunk dramatically and in 1966 they closed completely.

Two factors are generally thought to have brought about the demise of the circulating library. The first is the emergence of the cheap, attractive paperback book which made the Boots product look dowdy and undesirable. Imprints like Penguin were also much more daring in their choice of titles and popularised a higher literary ambition amongst readers. The second, and probably the most important, was the passing, in 1964, of the Public Libraries and Museums Act which put an obligation on local authorities to provide free lending libraries for the use of everyone regardless of class or income status.

So if you do come across one of these old Boots lending library books remember you are holding a little slice of history in your hands. That’s probably not quite enough to make them attractive or tempt you to buy them but given what’s happening to our public library network at the moment, they may in fact be the forerunners of what we will be forced to recreate in the future.


Terry Potter

July 2016