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Catalogues of public libraries

Circulating library catalogues, unlike private library auction catalogues, allow for a certain degree of precision when studying readers and more popular reading material in particular. Thus, despite the fact that a number of circulating libraries may also have espoused pedagogical or moral aims, circulating libraries’ essentially commercial nature would seem to serve as a guarantee that at least a proportion of the titles reported would have appealed to a larger reading public. By the same reasoning, it can be assumed that most titles listed in circulating library catalogues would certainly have been read, and most likely by a number of readers rather than just by a single one. The greater bibliographical precision offered by circulating library catalogues – especially regarding less prestigious reading matter such as novels, which it would have been in the library owner’s interest to describe as accurately as possible – further offers a number of new possibilities for studying women writers and their readership. These range from bibliographical discoveries – references to obscure titles or editions not reported elsewhere – to the historical patterns revealed by the precise dating furnished by circulating library catalogues. Thus, while catalogues drawn up after someone’s death inevitably suffer from a certain time-lag and may reflect the reading habits of a previous generation, circulating library catalogues, coupled with booksellers’ stock catalogues, allow us to establish with some degree of precision the date at which specific authors or literary movements first became known in specific countries or regions.


Alicia C. Montoya, August 2004

See also: Alicia C. Montoya, “French and English women writers in Dutch library (auction) catalogues, 1700-1800. Some methodological considerations and preliminary results”, in S. van Dijk, Petra Broomans, Janet F. van der Meulen and Pim van Oostrum (eds.), “I have heard about you”. Foreign women’s writing crossing the Dutch border: from Sappho to Selma Lagerlöf. Hilversum: Verloren, 2004, p. 182-216.

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