The very first libraries outside of individual collections were university libraries. Places for scholars–and only scholars–to study and learn. Not available to the public.
In the mid 1700s, that started to change. The first libraries accessible to the public were those that charged an annual fee to those who’d borrow books. According to an article from the BBC, the first one in Britain was founded in 1741, by a group of miners and a schoolmaster. The first one in the United States, however, was founded by Benjamin Franklin even earlier than that, in 1731.
Many of the subscription libraries that sprang up became what we know today as public libraries: county libraries, and city libraries that are free for anyone to access, and for locals to check out books.
However, in a lot of ways, public libraries are changing. Some are increasing their floor space to accommodate electronic media and audio/visual holdings. Others are reducing their traditional books, journals, newspapers, and the print media so that they can expand into what the common American wants to have access to.
Either way, what this frequently means is that there are fewer books, and libraries are unwilling to take chances on newer authors, choosing to stock only best-sellers…which are often only best-sellers because of publisher pressure, and are frequently badly written or badly edited (including, occasionally, bad copy editing).
Recently, however, Amazon has moved into the fray: they’ve stepped into the older, subscription library role, twice over, in their e-books. Subscribers to Amazon Prime have access to a lending service (sadly, a very limited one). Their other service, Kindle Unlimited, is (while still limited) very much a better bargain.
Amazon Prime permits the loan of one book per month. I haven’t looked closely into the service, mostly because both my husband and I read exponentially more than that. I’m not entirely sure which books are available through this service.
Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, on the other hand…that one is much more our speed. We pay $10/month, and can take out up to 10 books at a time…but the overall number of books we can read is limited only by the number of books available to the Kindle Unlimited (KU) program.
Yes, we use the hell out of it. I think we recoup our value within the first week of the month, even considering the much lower prices of independently published books we tend to read.
It is a godsend for independent authors (like yours truly). Yeah, people are unwilling to spend money on an author they know nothing about. However, by enrolling books in the KU program, authors can change that. If people aren’t willing to buy the books outright, they might be willing to borrow them…and the KU program pays the author by the number of pages read.
Each and every one of my books is available through Kindle Unlimited. Partially because I like getting paid for book borrows, but mostly because I’m getting a lot out of it as a subscriber. It’s a really neat program, with an awesome lineage.