A subscription library (also membership library or independent library) is a library that is financed by private funds either from membership fees or endowments. Unlike a public library, access is often restricted to members, but access rights can also be given to non-members, such as students.
In the 18th century, there were virtually no public libraries in the sense in which we now understand the term i.e. libraries provided from public funds and freely accessible to all. Only one important library in Britain, Chetham's Library in Manchester, was fully and freely accessible to the public. However, during the century, there came into being a whole network of library provision on a private or institutional basis.
The increase in secular literature at this time encouraged the establishment of commercial subscription libraries. Many small, private book clubs evolved into subscription libraries, charging high annual fees or requiring subscribing members to purchase shares. Subscription libraries would in turn use these earnings to expand their collections and later create their own publications. Unlike a public library, access was often restricted to members. Some of the earliest such institutions were founded in Britain, such as Chetham's Library in 1653, Innerpeffray Library in 1680 and Thomas Plume's Library in 1704. In the American colonies, the Library Company of Philadelphia was started in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. By paying an initial fee and annual dues, members had access to books, maps, fossils, antique coins, minerals, and scientific instruments. The first subscription library in Canada was formed in the 1800s at Niagara.
The materials available to subscribers tended to focus on particular subject areas, such as biography, history, philosophy, theology and travel, rather than works of fiction, particularly the novel.
Subscription libraries were democratic in nature; created by and for communities of local subscribers who aimed to establish permanent collections of books and reading materials, rather than selling their collections annually as the circulating libraries tended to do, in order to raise funds to support their other commercial interests. Even though the subscription libraries were often founded by reading societies, committees, elected by the subscribers, chose books for the collection that were general, rather than aimed at a particular religious, political or professional group. The books selected for the collection were chosen because they would be mutually beneficial to the shareholders. The committee also selected the librarians who would manage the circulation of materials.: 147–148
Subscription libraries were also referred to as 'proprietary' libraries due to the expectation that subscribers not only pay an annual fee, but that they must also invest in shares. These shares could be transferred by sale, gift or bequest. Many could not afford to purchase shares to become a member, even though they may have belonged to reading clubs.: 148–149
The increasing production and demand for fiction promoted by rising literacy rates and the expansion of commercial markets, led to the rise of circulating libraries, which met a need that subscription libraries did not fulfill.
William Bathoe opened his commercial venture at two locations in London in 1737, and claimed to have been 'the Original Circulating library'. An early circulating library may even have been established in the mid-17th century; in an edition of "Tom Tyler and his Wife" in 1661 Francis Kirkman included a catalogue of 690 plays which he claimed to be ready to lend "upon reasonable considerations" from his premises in Westminster.
Circulating libraries charged subscription fees to users and offered serious subject matter as well as the popular novels, thus the difficulty in clearly distinguishing circulating from subscription libraries. Occasionally subscription libraries called themselves 'circulating libraries', and vice versa.
"Many ordinary circulating libraries might call themselves 'subscription' libraries because they charged a subscription, while the earliest private subscription libraries, such as Leeds, Warrington, or Liverpool, describe themselves as 'circulating' libraries in their titles. Since many circulating libraries called themselves after the town where they were situated, it is often difficult to distinguish the type of a particular library, especially since many are only known to posterity from a surviving book label, with nothing but the name as identification".
In Britain there were more than 200 commercial circulating libraries open in 1800, more than twice the number of subscription and private proprietary libraries that were operating at the same time. Many proprietors pandered to the most fashionable clientele, making much ado about the sort of shop they offered, the lush interiors, plenty of room and long hours of service. "These 'libraries' would be called rental collections today."
With the advent of free public libraries in the 19th century, most subscription libraries were replaced or taken over by the governing authorities.
In London, numerous scientific dabblers, amateurs, professionals concentrated in the comparatively small geographic area began to form a unique development - the learned society:
"These societies are voluntary associations of men and women who have come together because they are interested in the aims and objects which the societies serve and they feel that they can pursue those interests better as members of a society, rather than as individuals. The libraries therefore have been collected together for the purpose of serving the objects to which the various societies are dedicated and they do this, for the most part, by serving their members".: 242
Learned society libraries were private but were owned by larger groups of people. Materials were often lent or borrowed by qualified individuals or institutions outside the society. Societies were concerned mainly with the sciences, physical and biological, and often cooperated with other groups like the Royal Society.
Exclusive subscription libraries, the world's oldest being the Chemical Society in London, was founded in 1841 for the general advancement of chemistry. Its primary objective was to guide and direct original research in chemistry and to disseminate that knowledge through debates, lectures and its own journal.: 243–246
Proprietary and subscription libraries....