We think of a public library as one operated by a town or county. It serves the general public without charge. Peterborough, New Hampshire started the first one in America in 1833. It is not, however, the first American circulating library. That honor belongs to the Library Company of Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin founded it in 1831.
Franklin’s library was a subscription library. Its members pooled their resources to purchase books for their own use. At the time, books were rare and expensive in the American colonies. Only the most wealthy citizens could afford to buy very many books.
Harvard University and other educational institutions had libraries, but they generally protected their books from the public. Open limited hours, they offered access to only a few people. Until Franklin decided to establish his library, the very idea of a library people could actually use hardly existed.
Benjamin Franklin’s early years
As a child growing up in Boston, Benjamin Franklin showed a great talent for writing, but his father could only afford to send him to school for two years. He loved reading, however. He borrowed books from friends and saved all his money to buy his own.
When Franklin was 11, he became an indentured apprentice in his older brother James’ printing business. James started the New England Courant, only America’s second newspaper, four years later.
Unfortunately. James was abusive. Benjamin wanted to write for the paper but knew his brother would disapprove. So he wrote something under the pen name Silence Dogwood and slipped it under the door. His brother published it and several more articles with the same byline.
James also eventually published an article the government didn’t like. After serving two weeks in jail, he was forbidden to print the Courant. So Benjamin took over until he left Boston in 1723 at age 17.
In Philadelphia, Franklin worked for Samuel Keimer’s printing business. He also became friends with Governor William Keith and frequently dined in his home. Keith promised to write letters of recommendation for Franklin and sent him to England to buy his own printing equipment. Unfortunately, he never sent the letters, so Franklin couldn’t buy the equipment. He did, however, find jobs with various London printers.
Franklin purchased Keimer’s newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1728. As newspaper publisher and editor, he developed a good reputation and eventually became wealthy.
After returning to Philadelphia in 1727, Franklin established a social club called the Junto, modeled after gentlemen’s clubs he’d encountered in London and named for a group of Whig parliamentarians.
The Junto met weekly for “mutual improvement.” Franklin capped the membership at twelve. All but one of the founding members were tradesmen, but they had a wide range of tastes and interests. Franklin presided over discussions that covered such topics as astrology, mathematics, scientific invention, natural history, and poetry.
The club inspired an astonishing number of important institutions, including a fire company, the American Philosophical Society, the eventual University of Pennsylvania, and the Library Company of Philadelphia. The Junto dissolved in 1765 when Franklin was in London for a diplomatic mission.
Franklin himself had many interests. In addition to his printing business and his diplomatic activity helping American independence, he was an inventor, scientist, and one of America’s earliest environmentalists.
The Library Company of Philadelphia
Junto members had wide interests but no books. In other words, they had no way either to increase their knowledge or settle disputes that arose in their discussions.
Therefore, on July 1, 1731, Franklin and other Junto members drew up “Articles of Agreement” to form the Library Company of Philadelphia. Although the Junto capped its membership, the Company did not. It opened with 50 subscribers, who each invested 40 shillings and promised to invest an additional 10 shillings every year. They also donated whatever books they already owned.
The Company enlisted the help of James Logan to select the first books to purchase. Logan had come to Pennsylvania as William Penn’s secretary. He owned the largest personal library in the colony and could read Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.
The first book order was sent to London in 1732. Peter Collinson, a Londoner who corresponded with Franklin, soon became the Company’s purchasing agent. Under his leadership, the library acquired mostly books in the English language.
Besides books, the Company collected such artifacts as coins, fossils, plant and animal specimens, and scientific instruments. Benjamin West donated a mummified Egyptian princess. The Company’s microscopes and telescopes proved more practical and were frequently used.
Penn himself donated an orrery (a clockwork model of the solar system) in 1733, but the Company couldn’t induce him to donate much money.
At first, the Company’s librarian kept the collection in his home. The first librarian, Louis Timothee, soon moved to Charleston, South Carolina to open his own printing business. Franklin briefly served as librarian but turned the task over to William Parsons, a shoemaker.
By 1739, the collection had outgrown Parson’s home. The Company moved it to newly finished rooms on the second floor of the building now known as Independence Hall.
Early operation of the library
The library was open to members from 4:00 to 8:00 on Saturdays. Members could borrow books without restriction. Non-members could also borrow, but they had to put up collateral that the Company could sell if they failed to return books.
The Company’s secretary corresponded with Collinson about book orders and kept minutes of the officers’ meetings. Joseph Breintnall served as the first secretary, but the task eventually fell to Franklin.
Franklin kept meticulous records of his scientific experiments but was otherwise not well organized. When he went to London on his diplomatic mission in 1764, he left a box of unfiled notes with his wife. He did, however, print the earliest extant catalog of the library in 1741.
By the 1740s, the Library Company of Philadelphia began to inspire libraries in other cities. Franklin later noted that “these Libraries have improved the general Conversation of Americans [and] made the common Tradesm[e]n and Farmers as intelligent as most Gentleman from other Countries, and perhaps have contributed in some Degree to the Stand so generally made throughout the Colonies in Defence of their Privileges.”
These other libraries likewise operated as subscription libraries. Peterborough’s idea of a free public library found no follower until the establishment of the Boston Public Library in 1848. The Library Company of Philadelphia continues to operate as a non-circulating research library to this day.
Acquiring skills in London / Benjamin Franklin Historical Society
Early life / Benjamin Franklin Historical Society
Junto / Brooke Sylvia Palmieri, Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia
The Library Company of Philadelphia home page
Philadelphia: the Library Company / The Electric Ben Franklin, Independence Hall Association