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Libraries

DEBRA GETTELMAN


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Although the nineteenth century is known in Britain as a time of dramatic expansion in both publishing and literacy, for much of that period the price of new books placed them largely beyond the reach of most Victorian readers. In consequence, these readers turned to the rapidly developing and diverse system of libraries, which increasingly flourished as a portal to the growing world of print. Over the course of the nineteenth century the term “library” was used to refer to such varied institutions as commercial lending enterprises like Mudie's Select Library; the libraries attached to regional literary and philosophical societies and workers' institutes; free public libraries; and the revered reference library of the British Museum. For Victorians, a library could also mean a domestic space within the home or a series of relatively inexpensive classic books. In all these forms, libraries were the subject of surprisingly keen debate and social-class tension in the Victorian era. They at once made possible the individualistic discovery of new worlds and new identities through reading and, by regulating what books could be read, participated in the transmission of collective, largely middle-class values. While both print culture and the size of the reading audience began expanding significantly in the eighteenth century, new books remained costly to buy for much of the nineteenth ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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