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20 Century Br Hist. 2014;25(2):199-220.

The twopenny library: the book trade, working-class readers, and 'middlebrow' novels in Britain, 1930-42.


Twopenny libraries first appeared in North London in 1930 and quickly spread throughout urban Britain. Their innovation was to dispense with subscription fees and charge per loan. Unlike older commercial libraries such as Mudie's, twopenny libraries served a working-class clientele. Some twopenny libraries were standalone businesses. Many more were sidelines to existing businesses such as tobacconists' and newsagents' shops. Library services could be profitable in their own right, but often their main value to their proprietors was to bring customers into the shop more regularly. Established players in the book trade initially responded to twopenny libraries with alarm, but the threat they posed was limited. Their market was not the same as those of booksellers. Some public librarians made arguments along these lines about the twopenny libraries' impact on public libraries; certainly, the two types of institution coexisted. Twopenny libraries carried a lot of so-called light fiction, but they also lent working-class readers the 'middlebrow' bestsellers of the 1920s and 1930s. The wider significance of the twopenny library lies in the way it problematizes the distinction commonly made between a middle-class public for new hardcover novels and a working-class readership of fiction that appeared in cheap papers and magazines.

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