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Circulating libraries were not exclusively lending institutions and often provided a place for other forms of commercial activity, which may or may not be related to print.

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Public libraries typically allow users to borrow books and other materials, i.e., take off the premises temporarily; they also have non-circulating reference collections and provide computer and Internet access to patrons.

The culmination of centuries of advances in the printing press, moveable type, paper, ink, publishing, and distribution, combined with an ever-growing information-oriented middle class, increased commercial activity and consumption, new radical ideas, massive population growth and higher literacy rates forged the public library into the form that it is today. Romans made scrolls in dry rooms available to patrons of the baths, and tried with some success to establish libraries within the empire.

It is operated by librarians and library paraprofessionals, who are also civil servants.

There are five fundamental characteristics shared by public libraries.

The establishment of circulating libraries in the 18th century, by booksellers and publishers provided a means of gaining profit and creating social centers within the community.