When I, as a precocious teenager, announced to my mother that I was going to be an author, her pragmatic response was to encourage me to apply for a Saturday job at our local library. It was sound advice. I continued working at the library throughout school, university, and after I graduated. The many hours I spent roaming the bookshelves influenced my choice of study—I gained a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Bristol, then a Postgraduate Diploma in Information Science from City, University of London—and shaped my career.

I remained with the public library service for well over a decade, before moving on to the House of Commons Library and later becoming a communications consultant. It was through libraries, or rather the enthusiastic recommendations of so many of our patrons, that I discovered my love of murder mysteries.

It might have taken a while, but spending so much of my life at the library was foundational to achieving my goal of seeing my own words in print with the publication of Miss Austen Investigates: The Hapless Milliner this month. And I am hardly the only author to profess a passion for libraries—Jane Austen adored them.

Austen’s surviving letters are full of references to circulating libraries (commercial enterprises where books were circulated among members, as opposed to private libraries where they remain in situ) and book societies (groups of individuals who would club together to purchase reading materials and then share them among themselves). It is sobering to think that without access to libraries, the life of our greatest ever novelist might have taken a different path.

Austen lived at a time when girls of the middling sort were afforded just enough education to make a good marriage. Although she was briefly sent away to school, she had received all her formal education by the time she turned 12. Austen compensated for this by reading widely and, as the daughter of a schoolmaster and clergyman, she was fortunate to be surrounded by books. Her father owned over 500 volumes—an impressive collection when you realize how expensive books were at the time: roughly equivalent to $300 for a bound volume. The Reverend George Austen’s collection included poetry, history, and theology, as well as some rather racy eighteenth-century tomes (such as Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, which we know his daughter read from her accounts of flirting with Tom Lefroy). There was no book banning in the Austen household!

But this wasn’t sufficient variety for Austen. In a letter to her sister, she gleefully records subscribing to a new establishment just opened in nearby Basingstoke. As circulating libraries catered for popular tastes, it was sure to carry her favorite form of literature—one she would go on to perfect and define:

“As an inducement to subscribe Mrs Martin tells us that her Collection is not to consist only of Novels, but of every kind of Literature &c &c – She might have spared this pretension to our family, who are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so; - but it was necessary I suppose to the self-consequence of half her Subscribers.” —Jane Austen, December 19, 1798

In Austen’s day, the novel was a relatively a new art form, dismissed by critics as ephemeral, lightweight, and feminine. But she had no pretensions about literature—she was simply hungry for stories.

In 1801, when Austen was 25 and seemed poised to achieve literary greatness—she already had the first drafts of what would become Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey tucked away in her writing box—her parents gave up their quiet life in rural Hampshire in favor of a series of extended holidays to Bath and the south coast of England. She is said to have been devastated to leave her beloved Steventon Rectory and, in her letters, she bitterly laments the breaking up and selling off of her father’s library.

It’s clear from the sudden drop in output that Austen struggled over the years that followed. On a practical level, it must have been extremely difficult to write during this period of enforced sociability, often a guest in someone else’s house and expected to provide unpaid childcare to her numerous nieces and nephews. Several of Austen’s novels can be read as the quest for a settled home, and it’s hard not to project the feelings of the heroines onto the author. It’s not true that Austen didn’t write at all during this time: she sold the rights to what would become Northanger Abbey—although infuriatingly, the publisher never printed it—and began a new project, The Watsons, which may have become too painful to continue after her father died suddenly in 1805.

During these years of constant traveling, libraries were especially important to her. She couldn’t replace the home she’d lost but, for a small fee, she could subscribe to a circulating library wherever she went. One of the most singular things about Austen is how isolated she was, both socially and geographically. Unlike her contemporary “authoresses,” she was not part of the literary elite in London or Edinburgh. However, through her work, she claimed a kinship with other women writers. In her spirited defense of the novel in Northanger Abbey, she proudly cites her influences, including Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Ann Radcliffe. Through libraries, and the works they carried, Austen forged a connection to a wider tradition of women’s writing.

In 1809, Edward Knight provided a permanent home to his mother and sisters in the village of Chawton. Austen’s letters brim with happiness at the prospect of returning to her native Hampshire. She even jokingly boasts that the book society of nearby Alton was so superior that it inspired friends across the country to establish their own. Once settled, she immediately began preparing her completed novels for publication and writing three new ones.

Libraries continually play an important part in Austen’s work. After Fanny Price, her most timid heroine, is ejected from Mansfield Park for refusing a socially and financially advantageous match to a man she knows is a rogue, her next “daring” act is to subscribe to the library in Portsmouth. Emancipated at last, Fanny is amazed at her own tenacity at becoming “a renter, a chuser [sic] of books!”

For Austen, libraries represented a means of empowerment. Just like Fanny, she spent years trapped by her circumstances. As an unmarried daughter, lacking an independent income, she was forced to comply with the whims of parents and subsist on handouts from wealthier relations. But through her subscription to various libraries, she was at liberty to decide what she read and set her imagination free to roam. Her legacy has inspired legions of readers and writers. Not just women, but anyone who has ever felt oppressed or excluded by their society can find a home in Austen. I think it’s fair to say we have libraries, and the dedicated librarians who curated and cared for these collections, to thank for helping her on her way.

Jessica Bull is the author of Miss Austen Investigates.