Here's a relevant article from the Leisure Hour of 1861:
FOR a number of years past, the name which stands at the head of this article has been growing more and more widely diffused, and more and more familiar in the mouths of the reading public. It greets us now, whichever way we turn--within doors and without, at our firesides in winter, at the tables of our friendly hosts when we visit, in our country trips and excursions, and on summer sea-side rambles. It is a part of the nomenclature of our domestic circles at all seasons, and whenever we hear it mentioned it is associated with some agreeable recollection or pleasant anticipation. Not a few of us, probably, have ceased to connect it with any idea of an individual ; it is rather to us the representative of an inexhaustible store of recreative literature -- a never-failing quarry of entertainment and information of all kinds, ever available for our use.
We call to remembrance a very different state of things as regards books, in the domain of home, and the domestic appreciation of them; for we have recollections, dating very far back, of the old- fashioned circulating libraries of the days when the romance, gory and ghostly, and the novel, too often indecent and immoral, formed the principal if not the sole stock of the proprietors. These were clad in one stereotyped uniform of marbled paper covers ; and although they were constantly circulating, they may be said, so far as the more staid and sober part of the community meddled with them, to have circulated rather surreptitiously than openly. Even if the fashionable fair one read novels, she did not always care to make a boast of so doing ; if she pulled the check-string and drew up at the library for them, it was perhaps with the ostensible purpose of purchasing stationary, or even of giving orders for a new dress; for the marble-papered volumes were sometimes seen in those days ranged on the shelves of the mantua- maker, and Miss Gopher, who dabbled quite as much in sentiment as she did in quilted satin, was a distinguished judge of the merits of fashionable authors as well as of fashions. The capacious muff of those days was a convenient receptacle for three delicious volumes; and we have known them to be sent home in a parcel purporting to contain stuffs and bombazines. Frequently my lady's Abigail was the medium of transport, and then there was no attempt at disguising facts, as she would be pretty sure to dip into them, and pounce upon the tender passages, as she carried them through the streets.
It was in those days that reading first became a passion with us ; and we remember well that the marble-covered books were expressly and most strictly forbidden—and not without reason, though we were sometimes guilty of transgressions against the parental law. With shame now we remember the contrivances to smuggle the contraband literature indoors. Once within the house, by hook or by crook, we had to lug it off secretly to some garret or lumber-room, there to "snatch a fearful joy" in devouring it alone. Thanks to an improved moral tone in our popular writers, the youth of our time have less temptation to practise such evasions. The supervision which their forefathers often exercised in vain, has become far less necessary than it was in their time; partly because the critical censors of the present day are less tolerant of immoral and questionable productions than their predecessors were, but chiefly because the public, which is the arbiter of a writer's reputation and fortune, will resent in an emphatic way any marked laxity in morals or breach of the social proprieties. It is, in fact, owing to the improved common sentiment of the paying classes of the people, that, while books have multiplied so amazingly within the last two or three decades, they have become to so large a degree the instruments of good and not of evil not, however, but what there is still abundant room for improvement in this respect.
Standing in front of Mudies counter, in that huge intellectual repository, (which, by the way, con- fronts its material antithesis, the grandiose slop emporium of Messrs. Moses,) one sees something of the operation of the great circulating system of which this is the centre, and something too which is very different from the experiences of those old days in the same walk. It is not madame, with her capacious and convenient muff, or the tripping Abigail in second-hand finery, who summons with a tap-tap on the counter the spectacled bibliopole from the back parlour, and whispers a solicitation for the third volume of the "Mystery of the Haunted Dell ;" but it is all the world and all the world's wife, in want of everything worth reading that has been published for these seven years past, keeping the swivelled doors in a perpetual swing, and a dozen or two of ministrant Mercuries perpetually on the alert. Books of all dimensions and hues are raining in and rippling out under a system of registration, by means of little scraps of paper hurriedly written, which are the vouchers for delivery. The applicants are the young and the old—the well-dressed and the "seedy"—the clergyman, the student, the author, the critic—forming a large section of the ever-reading and seldom-purchasing public. Then there are the representatives of May Fair and Belgravia, in the shape of a file of tall footmen, each with a whole shelf of mauve and magenta-coloured volumes, for which each expects and intends to carry away the change in a corresponding number of new ones, the list of which he has brought with him. Subscribers, or their messengers, who have trudged a long distance, are resting on the benches and looking on until their turn comes. Others, who have not made up their mind what to read next, are poring over the catalogue, and endeavouring to come to a decision. Meanwhile, the business does not slacken ; books come in and go out as fast as ever ; carriages draw up at the door, and gentle-folks alight to execute their own commissions and chose for themselves. It seems odd, amidst such a continuous influx of counter business, to hear no jingling of cash ; but that is a sound which one has no objection to miss.
After all, this continuous influx and reflux over the counter gives but an imperfect and probably inadequate notion of the extent of the circulation radiating from this point. Much of the business is done by correspondence instead of personal application ; thousands of the books travel by rail, and cargoes are daily delivered in the suburbs of the metropolis by flying carts. Then there are the suburban agencies, where the well-known yellow label figures in the window, and invites you to the perusal of a new work almost before the newspapers have made you aware of its publication.
The subscribers to Mudie's are not merely individuals, reading for pleasure or profit ; they are families ; they are friendly co-operating coteries, who combine together to pay the subscription, and pass on the books from one to another ; they are societies for mutual instruction ; they are publishers distributing the books among their compilers and editors ; they are institutes, reading-rooms, book-clubs, business-clubs, and social•clubs ; they are bankers subscribing for the benefit of their clerks, and they are heads of establishments concerned in the intellectual advancement of their " hands" and employees. Looking to the nature of the reading appetite, and recognising what a devouring element it is, we may be sure that when demands of such a multitudinous kind have to be met, it is not a limited selection from the literature of the country that will satisfy them ; and the difficulty must be with the man who caters for all classes of readers, and who is expected to provide nearly everything that issues from the press -- not what he shall choose, so much as what, for the sake of the general well-being, he shall reject. When Perthes, the famous Hamburg patriot and book-seller, first began business, he formed a resolution, which he never allowed to be shaken, that he would for no consideration be the instrument of producing or of circulating a work of questionable tendency. Whether Mr. Mudie has adopted any similar resolution we do not pretend to know ; but it would appear, from a late discussion in the literary organs of the day, that he has had the temerity to exercise some sort of supervision over the works he circulates, and, for reasons which we should be the last to impeach, has declined to place certain volumes upon his shelves. We cannot see that this affords to any man a just ground of com- plaint. A librarian, like any other tradesman, has a right to deal in what wares he chooses, and, if he have extraordinary facilities for disseminating them, is not only justified in making such a use of his facilities as shall be concordant with his own sense of right, but is morally bound so to do : he would not be an honest man if he did otherwise. It is open to objectors to such a course, to organize machinery for the dissemination of their own opinions and principles, if they choose : if they are wronged, the public will assuredly set them right. But we have no desire to enter the arena in this battle of the books.
Of the number of volumes which form the floating stock of this everybody's library, we can form not even an approximate idea, much less of the numbers annually passing from hand to hand. Some notion, however, of the amount of business may be gathered from the fact that frequently a large edition of a popular work is required for the use of this house alone. Sometimes as many as from two to three thousand copies have not been more than sufficient to meet the demand ; and even of works quite ephemeral in their character, hundreds of copies often have to be purchased.
To meet the requirements of the increasing business, a large hall has lately been added to the premises, and appropriated to exclusively business purposes. It is an elegant structure in the Ionic style of architecture, affording space for some fifteen to twenty thousand volumes on the shelves, which run round the walls and galleries above.
It is not easy to estimate at once the influence and effects of such an establishment as this. Perhaps no mere business speculation ever before produced results so pervading and so generally agreeable. After having Mudie in the house for the last ten years—often the last guest at night, and frequently the first in the morning---by the fireside in winter, by the open garden window and under the talking foliage in summer ; after travelling with him abroad, and sulking with him at home after reading hundreds of volumes which, but for him, we should never have had the chance of reading at all—we sometimes ask ourselves what we should do without him? Really we don't know; one thing we must do—we must make more use of that Museum Reading-room ticket which has grown almost mouldy in our pocket ; for we should not be able to transport the advantages of the Museum to our armchair at home.
And here's some detail of how it all worked c.1908 (Dickens's Dictionary of London)
The principal circulating libraries for general literature, especially the more recently published works, are -W. H. SMITH AND SONS'S, 186, Strand; chief London exchange office Kingsway, W.C.; MUDIE'S, 30 to 34 New Oxford-st. Terms for W. H. Smith and Son's, payable in advance at any of the branches or the head office:-
FOR EXCHANGING AT A LONDON BRANCH OR HEAD OFFICE. Class A.-The newest and all books in circulation
For these terms, also, books can be exchanged by post, rail, or any other available means desired from the Head Office to any part of the United Kingdom. A deposit, for cost of postage forward, is required for this. The expense of carriage and postage to and from is home by the subscriber.
Six Months Twelve Months One vol. £0 12s 0 £1 1s 0 Two vols. £0 17s 6 £1 11s 0 Four vols. £1 3s 0 £2 2s 0 Eight vols. £1 15s 0 £3 3s 0 Fifteen vols. £3 0s 0 £5 5s 0
FOR DELIVERY AND COLLECTION (WEEKLY) TO AND FROM SUBSCRIBERS' RESIDENCES IN LONDON - Class A.-The newest and all books in circulation.
PROVINCIAL BRANCHES - FOR EXCHANGING AT ANY OF THE SUBURBAN AND COUNTRY DEPOTS - Class A-The newest and ill books in circulation.
Six Months Twelve Months Three vols. £1 3s 0 £2 2s 0 Six vols. £1 15s 0 £3 3s 0 Twelve vols. £3 0s 0 £5 5s 0 For every additional 3 vols. £0 12s 6 £1 1s 0
SPECIAL TRAVELLING SUBSCRIPTIONS - Entitling subscribers to exchange at any depot without previous notice.
Six Months Twelve Months One vol. £0 12s 0 £1 1s 0 Two vols. £0 17s 6 £1 11s 6 Three vols. £1 3s 0 £2 2s 0 Four vols. £1 8s 0 £2 10s 0 Six vols. £1 15s 0 £3 3s 0 Twelve vols. £3 0s 0 £5 5s 0
The following are the addresses of bookstalls and bookshops London at which subscriptions can be paid and books obtained:-
Six Months Twelve Months One vol. £0 17s 6 £1 10s 0 Two vols. £1 3s 0 £2 2s 0 Three vols. £1 8s 6 £2 12s 6
Brompton-rd Railway Station
Brondesbury, 352, High-rd.
Camden Town, Tube Station.
Cannon-st Railway Station.
Chalk Farm, 168, Regents-pk rd, N.W.
Charing +, Railway Station.
Down-st Tube Station.
Earl's Court Railway Station
Earl's Court, 166, Earls-ct-rd
Fenchurch-st Railway Station
Finsbury-pk Railway Station
Finsbury-pk City Electric Railway Station.
Golder's Green Tube Station
Hampstead, 483, Finchley-rd
Hampstead, 12, Swiss-ter, N W
Hampstead Heath, 34, Rosslyn- hill.
17, Hanover-st, W.
Holborn Viaduct Railway Station
Hyde-pk-corner Tube Station.
King's Cross Railway Station.
Kensington, Addison-rd, 4, Russsel-gdns.
Kilburn, 103, High-rd.
Liverpool-st Railway Station.
London-br, L.B & S.C. Ry Statn.
London-br, S.E. Railway Station.
London-br, S. London Ry. Stat.
Ludgate-hill Railway Station.
Mansion House Railway Station.
Marylebone Railway Station.
Moorgate-st G.N. & C.R. Station.
Mornington-cres. Tube Station.
Monument Railway Station.
Paddington, 19, Craven-rd, W.
Salisbury House, London Wall, E.C.
South Kensington Tube Station.
St. Pancras Railway Station.
St. Paul's Railway Station.
Sloane-sq, No. 36.
Tufnell-pk Railway Station.
Uxbridge-rd, 161, Holland-rd, W.
Victoria B. & S.C. Railway Statn.
Victoria S.E. & C. Railway Statn.
Waterloo-rd Railway Station.
Waterloo-rd Loop Line Railway Station.
Waterloo-rd South Railway Stat.
West Kensington Railway Station.
Willesden Green, 76, Walm-la.
With 800 branches throughout England and Wales.
MUDIE'S SELECT LIBRARY, 30 to 34, Oxford-st, is probably the oldest institution of its kind in the world, being started in 1842 by Mr. C. K. Mudie. It claims to be to-day the largest, best equipped and most widely-known lending library in existence, and notes that it has in addition to current publications an unrivalled collection of standard works, accumulated over sixty years. Classified catalogues are issued at the beginning of each year, one of English and the other of foreign books, 1s. 6d. each, or 2s. 6d. the two. Supplementary lists are issued monthly, free to subscribers. It is probable that the advantage of getting the latest modern books of fiction is a great branch of all libraries' business, and certainly of Messrs. Mudies. The yellow label has been known now for generations. Terms for subscribers obtaining their books from the chief offices, i.e. 30 to 34, Oxford-st; 48, Queen Victoria-st, E.C., 241, Brompton-rd, exchanging as often as they like:
Books are delivered once a week in the suburbs at an additional fee to the above, and arrangements are made by which provincial subscribers may have them forwarded by rail as often as required.
Three Months Six Months Twelve Months 1 vol. £0 7s 0 £0 12s 0 £1 1s 0 2 vols. £0 10s 6 £0 18s 0 £1 11s 6 3 " £0 12s 0 £1 1s 0 £1 17s 0 4 " £0 14s 0 £1 4s 0 £2 2s 0 8 " £1 8s 0 £2 8s 0 £4 4s 0 10 " £1 15s 0 £3 0s 0 £5 5s 0
The death of Mudie's was, of course ... the public library.