In 1816 when Nottingham Subscription Library started it was by no means obvious that it would be a library for both men and women. It must have at least crossed the minds of those who first tentatively mooted the possibility of a subscription library in Nottingham, that they could have established a gentleman’s club, with a library. Unfortunately we cannot travel back in time and eavesdrop on those early meetings, but we do have some information about the founding of the Library and its early members.
Because membership of the library allowed both the subscriber and their family use of the Library, women are, as they are in many cases in the nineteenth century, to some extent, invisible. By default, membership for a married couple would be in the name of the husband. But of the 160 subscribers listed in the first catalogue of the Library, nine of these are women. Five are single women – ‘Miss’, and four are ‘Mrs’, these are most likely widows.
The rules did allow the widow of an existing member to automatically continue her husband’s membership, without the committee having to vote to approve her membership. Everyone else wishing to become a member, as well as purchasing a share, had to be approved of by the committee. Having said that, it would take two thirds of the committee to reject a would-be member. It was never, at Nottingham Subscription Library, a ‘black ball’ situation.
Ladies were given certain privileges. At times of voting they could send signed lists in, or they could give written authority to a proxy to vote on their behalf. Perhaps it wasn’t considered lady-like to vote in person. But certainly they had equal voting rights even in 1816.
In 1826 the committee felt the need to forbid ‘gentlemen’ to smoke. There is no such advice issued to the ladies, presumably because ladies simply did not smoke.
The rules, when referring to the committee, do refer to them as ‘gentlemen’. Whether this is simply descriptive of the first committee or whether this is an expectation that the committee will be formed of men rather than women is unclear. What we do know is that in 1916, when John Russell wrote the centenary history of the library, two women had recently been elected as committee members.
There is more research to be done on this topic. For example, were any of the subscribers to the newsroom women, or was that an exclusively male preserve? Do the few issue records that remain give us more details of some of the Library’s invisible female members and what they were reading? Can we trace the activity of lady subscribers by their book suggestions, or by their complaints that some of the books purchased by the library were unsuitable and should be withdrawn?
And what of other libraries at this time, or other institutions? Does their experience compare with that of Nottingham Subscription Library? If you know, please do let us know.
 Russell, J. (1916) A history of the Nottingham Subscription Library, more generally known as Bromley House Library. Nottingham: Derry & Sons.