If you walked down a suburban Sydney street in the 1930s or 40s it’s likely you would have passed a small privately run library.
Hundreds of ‘circulating’ or subscription libraries operated from the early twentieth century to the 1960s.
Many smaller libraries charged a one-off joining fee, while larger libraries had a recurring subscription. The Booklovers’ Library in Caringbah, for example, had a joining fee of 3 shillings 6 pence (about $14 today) and a small fee starting at 6 pence (about $2) to borrow each book. Others, like the Paragon Library at Matraville, had a simple weekly hire rate per book, with no joining fee. Either way, it was much cheaper than buying new books, especially in the Depression era between the wars.
I was recently drawn into the world of circulating libraries by a request from a reader who was trying to find information about the Viking Library on Sydney Road in Balgowlah. He sent a photograph of an undated label that had been affixed to a book. It stated that the Viking’s quarterly subscription rates ranged from 6 shillings for one book at a time to 16 shillings for three books (approximately $14 to $39 today). Alternatively, you could pay an entrance fee of 2 shillings and 6 pence, and 3 pence per book (about $0.64).
I was disappointed to find no mention of a Viking Library in Trove’s digitised newspapers, so I did some wider research on circulating libraries. An early example can be seen in a photograph in the Library’s Holtermann Collection, which depicts Donald McDonald’s Circulating Library in Gulgong in the early 1870s. The number of these libraries increased steeply in the 1930s and peaked in the 1940s. By the end of the Second World War, according to book historian John Arnold, there were around 527 in Sydney.