While now largely forgotten, rental libraries (commercial circulating libraries) have played a major role in book distribution in twentieth-century U.S. The Booklovers Library, a rental library that Seymour Eaton started in Philadelphia in 1900, rapidly established rental outlets in 50 cities and circulated millions of books per year. Eaton soon proposed placing 10,000 rental book kiosks in locations across the U.S. in what he called the Tabard Inn Library. However, poor financial management across a wide variety of enterprises forced him into bankruptcy in 1905. Eaton was far from the only person to venture into the rental library business by the beginning of twentieth century. The Boston City Directory listed 10 rental libraries in 1900. Many others undoubtedly also existed elsewhere.
The number of rental libraries probably peaked in the mid-1930s. Rental libraries listed in the Boston City Directory held steady in number through the mid-1920s, and then rose sharply to 40 rental libraries in 1932-1933. A person highly knowledgeable about the book business noted in 1934 that rental libraries had grown rapidly from 1929-1934 and that “now the whole nation is renting books.” Lawrence Hoyt, the founder of Waldenbooks, now part of the Borders Group, established a rental library in 1933. While Hoyt expanded to 250 rental locations in 1948 and continued in the book-rental business through 1964, the total number of rental libraries seems to have declined after the mid-1930s. The number of rental libraries listed in the Boston City Directory was only 14 in 1945 and 3 in 1954. Industry observers noted a major contraction in the book-rental business in the 1950s and 1960s. Book rental still occurs in some small, independent bookstores and through vigorously competing online book-rental services. Countries such as India, which have lower average incomes and higher population densities, are more propitious locations for book-rental services than is the U.S. today.
In the mid-1930s, U.S. rental libraries probably circulated more than half as many books as did public libraries. The 1935 Census of Business recorded 932 rental libraries averaging $2,966 in yearly book-rental receipts. About 1935, the most common price for renting popular fiction was $0.15 for three days’ rental. Hence a high-side estimate for the average cost of a book rental is $0.25. At this price, the rental libraries reported in the Census had book circulation of 11 million. Public libraries, in contrast, had circulation of about 415 million books in 1935.
Actually rental library circulation in 1935 was much higher than the Census indicates. The Census missed a large number of rental libraries. In 1936, the editor of Publishers’ Weekly, in consultation with two of the largest book wholesalers, “estimated that there were between forty and fifty thousand rental libraries in operation ‘including deposit stations’ and that independent libraries were probably a quarter of that total.” Another apparently authoritative source declared in 1939 that “various rental library companies [reach] from 35,000 to 40,000 outlets.” In 1949, a date probably past the peak of rental libraries, another highly knowledgeable source declared:
About half of the 3,041 [book] stores noted above also have rental libraries, their quality, not doubt, varying with the size and quality of the stores.
There are probably more than fifty thousand other rental libraries in the United States, not counting those itinerants who visit offices and homes with bags of rental books and whose business, some say, is “surprisingly large,” whatever that may mean. Most of the fifty thousand libraries are controlled by ten big chains. The best libraries are said to be those run by the Walden Book Company; the largest chain is probably that of the American Lending Library Company, which has approximately ten thousand “outlets.”
The rental libraries that the Census omitted could not have been much smaller than those that the Census included. The rental libraries included in the Census had only about 1.5 full-time-equivalent employees per library. Moreover, a book entitled How to Run a Rental Library (published in 1934) had a table entitled “Tentative Monthly Budget for Small Library and Bookshop with Gross Sales from $3,000 to $20,000 per Year.” The average annual revenue per rental library recorded in the Census was only $3,261, of which $2,966 was for book rentals (“admissions and fees” category of receipts). If 20,000 rental libraries on average similar to those reported in the Census existed in 1935, then the total circulation of these rental libraries was 237 million. If the number of rental libraries was greater than 20,000, the average rental price lower than $0.25, or average rental-library book-rental receipts higher than $2,966, then total rental-book circulation would be even higher. Even under relatively conservative parameters, book circulation from rental libraries was greater than half of public libraries total circulation.
U.S. information industries historically have had considerable diversity in organization, funding, and operational models. Government printing operations have always been a significant part of the U.S. printing business. Non-commercial civic organizations founded more than half of the libraries that began operations prior to 1876 within the geographic U.S. As late as 1900, the number of civic-organization (social) libraries was about as large as the number of government-sponsored (public) libraries. Across the twentieth century, public libraries expanded their lending activities by lending commercially booming non-book media such as piano rolls, records, and videos. Late in the twentieth century, public libraries’ video lending operations grew faster than commercial video rentals. Nonetheless, public libraries’ video loans in 2004 amounted to only 12% of commercial video rentals. Public libraries in 1935 circulated less than twice as many books as did commercial rental libraries. Overall, public and commercial library activities were more similar in magnitude in 1935 than they are today.
Considerable diversity in organization, funding, and operational models is emerging for the provision of broadband communications networks. That’s not a historically unprecedented development.
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Here are the rental library statistics for 1935 from the Census of Business, along with related data and calculations.
Update: In response to a SHARP-L query I made about rental libraries in Germany, Bernhard Wirth helpfully documented some key facts:
In “LGB 2” (Lexikon des gesamten Buchwesens) there are given two figures: In 1950 there existed 13,000 rental libraries (ref.: Branchenverzeichnis der deutschen Bundespost); in 1933 there existed 2758 rental libraries with holdings of 20 million volumes and some 720 millions of circulations.
In “Lexikon des Bibliothekswesens” (2.ed., ed. by H. Kunze et al.; Leipzig 1974) there is given a figure for the year 1953: in Western Germany rental libraries there have been 600 million circulations, which should be twenty times the circulation figure of the municipal public libraries.
In the “Statistisches Jahrbuch fuer die Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1964” there is given the number of circulations in municipal public libraries in 1962 (in W-Germany): 42.5 million circulations. Unfortunately there’s no number for the rental libraries.
Update 2: An additional way to measure rental libraries is their share of book sold. Baker & Taylor Co, a U.S. trade book wholesaler, tracked in 1933 “13,991 copies of fifty representative book titles bought by forty-eight stores. Of these, 9,586 copies were resold and only 4,405 were put in rental libraries.” Of 878 books tracked in 1934, 345 out of 878 were put into rental libraries. The share of books sold to rental libraries thus averaged about half of total book sales in Baker & Taylor Co.’s reported samples, 1933-1934. The share undoubtedly varied significantly by book type. The Mystery Writers of America complained in 1945 that “a sale of 20,000 is exceptional for a mystery, but 12,000 of those are sold to rental libraries and read by 50 to 100 persons with no royalty benefits to the author.” The 1934 Baker & Taylor Co. data showed 28 rentals per book on average. Sources: “Book Notes,” New York Times, Apr. 18, 1933, p 13; –, New York Times, June 1, 1934, p 21; Trudi McCullough, “Writers Claim Crime Doesn’t Pay — Enough,” The Washington Post, Sept. 23, 1945, p. S5.
Update 3: Commercial circulating libraries (rental libraries) were also prevalent in England in the 1930s and 1940s. In England in the 1930s, the typical rental charge for a book was two pence per week, with no deposit. Allied Libraries, a Manchester-based firm, grew as a chain of rental libraries in the post-WWII period to a peak in March, 1962 of 1,489 agencies (rental libraries) and 362,000 books hired out. The average size of Allied Libraries’ rental libraries was 400 volumes. See Patricia M. Long, “The commercial circulating library in the 1970s,” Library History, v. 5, n. 6 (1981) pp. 185-93, esp. pp. 186, 187.
Notes for main post:
 Conklin (1934) p. 11. In 1932, Simon & Schuster introduced “Novel Novels”. These were “fiction selected and bound particularly for use in rental libraries The sole purpose of these books, the publishers say, will be to entertain, their celophane wrappers will be sealed to the binding and they will be specially bound, with reinforced backs.” They also were to be produced with attractive colored covers. The first two books published under the Novel Novels brand were Bourke Lee’s Blonde Interlude and C.C. Nicolet’s Death of a Bridge Expert. “Book Notes,” New York Times, June 20, 1932, p. 12. Conklin (1934), p. 15, summarized requirements for success in the rental-library business:
A practical business attitude, and, if possible, experience; capital sufficient for the chosen type of library; a love and knowledge of books — these are the requirements. To them should be added a knack of judging people themselves, for a rental library is one of the best laboratories in applied psychology. The librarian is a friend to the world; and you will need patience, acumen, and insight into individual minds, if you wish to attract a permanent clientele. You will need to possess the arts of a Machiavelli and the guile of the writer of an “Advice to the Lovelorn” column.
 Waldenbooks’ early rental libraries were leased locations in department stores. See Miller (2006) p. 45.
 Eppard (1986) p. 245 notes that industry attention to rental libraries waned after 1940. Conklin (1954), p. 1818, dates the steep decline in the book-rental business to 1950-1951. “In and Out of Books”, New York Times, June 9, 1963, p. 310, describes rental libraries as “that phenomenon of the depression thirties” and notes, “According to the A.B.A.’s [American Bookseller Association’s] figures, there probably are about 3,500 rental libraries, a small fraction of those that existed 30 years ago.”
 Conklin (1934) p. 56, Eppard (1986) p. 246.
 Estimates based on circulation data in Tables 1-3 in Galbi (2008).
 Eppard (1986) p. 244. Id. notes that the American Booktrade Directory for 1935 listed 2,066 firms that rented books. That’s much lower than the other estimates, but still more than twice the number of rental libraries recorded in the Census of 1935.
 Deeck (2006), citing Charles S. Strong, “The Circulating Library Novel,” published in The Writer’s 1939 Handbook. I have not been able to locate that original source.
 Miller (1949) p. 119.
 Conklin (1934) p. 91.
 U.S. public library circulation in 1935 was about 415 million. See above. In 1940 in Melbourne, Australia, rental libraries circulated about ten times as many books as did public libraries. See Arnold (1987) p. 85. Rassuli and Hollander (2001), p. 131-2, note that Johnson (1965), History of Libraries in the Western World, states that “German public libraries by 1962 circulated 50 million items (checkouts?), compared with 600 million for commercial libraries.” I join with id. in suggesting research on this claim.
References for main post:
Arnold, John. 1987. “‘Choose your author as you would choose a friend’: circulating libraries in Melbourne, 1930–1960.” The La Trobe Journal 10 (40): 77-96.
Conklin, Geoff. 1934. How to Run a Rental Library. Rahway, NJ: Bowker.
Conklin, Geoff. 1954. “Rental Libraries: Problems and Prospects — Part I.” Publishers’ Weekly 165 (24 Apr): 1818.
Deeck, William F. 2006. Murder at 3 Cents a Day: An Annotated Crime Fiction Bibliography of the Lending Library Publishers: 1936-1967. Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.
Eppard, Philip B. 1986. “The Rental Library in Twentieth-Century America.” Journal of Library History 21 (1): 240-252.
Galbi, Douglas. 2008. “Book Circulation Per U.S. Public Library User Since 1856.” Public Library Quarterly. 27 (4): 351-371.
Miller, Laura J. 2006. Reluctant capitalists: bookselling and the culture of consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Miller, William. 1949. The book industry; a report of the Public Library Inquiry. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
Rassuli, Kathleen M., and Stanley C. Hollander. 2001. “Revolving, Not Revolutionary Books: The History of Rental Libraries until 1960”. Journal of Macromarketing. 21: 123-134.