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This Day in History - Benjamin Franklin & Friends Found the Library Company of Philadelphia, the First Lending Library in America







1731
July 1
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN & FRIENDS FOUND THE LIBRARY COMPANY OF PHILADELPHIA, THE FIRST LENDING LIBRARY IN AMERICA

Most Americans in the 1730s had limited access to books. Books, in early America, were rare and expensive. There were no public libraries. Only the very wealthy and the clergy had access to large numbers of books. Even men of moderate means could not readily afford books. Enter Benjamin Franklin.

On July 1, 1731, Franklin and a group of members from the Junto, a philosophical association, drew up "Articles of Agreement" to form a library. The Junto was interested in a wide range of ideas, from economics to solving social woes to politics to science. But they could not turn to books to increase their knowledge or settle disputes, as between them they owned few tomes. But they recognized that via the Junto's combined purchasing power, books could be made available to all members.


Library Company of Philadelphia
Photo credits: Library Company of Philadelphia


So it was that 50 subscribers invested 40 shillings each to start a library. Members also promised to invest 10 shillings more every year to buy additional books and to help maintain the library. They chose as their motto a Latin phrase which roughly translates as "To support the common good is divine." Philip Syng, a silversmith who would one day create the inkstand with which the Declaration and Constitution were signed, designed the Company's seal¹.

Books were imported from England and the library was opened one day a week for lending. If a book was not returned on time, the fine was twice the value of the book. Due to its success, the lending library was imitated by other towns and provinces.


LIBRARY COMPANY OF PHILADELPHIA
Photo credits: Library Company of Philadelphia



First Books

In 1732, the Company's first book order was sent to London. James Logan, secretary to William Penn, assisted in picking the books. He was considered "the best Judge of Books in these Parts." In addition to having the largest personal library in Pennsylvania, the learned Logan knew Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.

Many of the earliest books in the Library's collection were either religious or educational tomes. But not all. As can be seen from other books donated by the Company's first members, there was an interest in politics, philosophy and business. Benjamin Franklin and others donated a number of works including A Collection of Several Pieces by John Locke and Plutarch's Morals. Franklin also donated his copy of Merchants Mappe of Commerce to the company. The books were kept in the librarian's lodgings.¹


Library Company of Philadelphia at Present

The Library Company of Philadelphia (LCP) is a non-profit organization based in Philadelphia. Founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin as a library, the Library Company of Philadelphia has accumulated one of the most significant collections of historically valuable manuscripts and printed material in the United States.

The current collection size is about 500,000 books and 70,000 other items, including 2,150 items that once belonged to Franklin, the Mayflower Compact, major collections of 17th-century and Revolution-era pamphlets and ephemera, maps, and whole libraries assembled in the 18th and 19th centuries.²


Established1731
LocationPhiladelphia
Collection
Size500,000 books; 70,000 other items
Access and use
CirculationNon-circulating collection
Population servedFree and open to the public
MembersBenjamin Franklin originally
Other information
DirectorDr. Michael J. Barsanti
Staff28
Websitehttp://www.librarycompany.org/


Library Company of Philadelphia 

Given below is the information about the Library Company of Philadelphia from the company's website.⁴

Overview

The Library Company of Philadelphia is an independent research library concentrating on American society and culture from the 17th through the 19th centuries. Free and open to the public, the Library Company houses an extensive non-circulating collection of rare books, manuscripts, broadsides, ephemera, prints, photographs, and works of art. Our mission is to foster scholarship in and increase public understanding of American history before 1900 by preserving and interpreting the valuable materials in our care. The Library Company connects with thousands of visitors annually, ensuring that the lessons of the past will continue to amaze, instruct, and inspire future generations. We serve a diverse constituency throughout Philadelphia and the nation, offering comprehensive reader services, an internationally renowned fellowship program, online catalogs, and regular exhibitions and public programs.

Public Programs

The Library Company regularly presents exhibits, lectures, symposia, conferences, gallery talks, and other programs in order to make the collections accessible to the widest possible audience. Exhibitions highlight various strengths of our collection in engaging ways. Program topics range widely and most events are free and open to the public (although reservations are often requested due to space constraints). For details on upcoming events, please see the Events section of this site. Additionally, many of our Exhibitions are available online.

A variety of programs are available to those unable to visit the Library Company in person. Our semi-annual newsletter (The Occasional Miscellany ) and our monthly electronic newsletter educate and inform on topics such as recent acquisitions, exhibitions, publications, and seminars, along with interesting features on our collection’s most remarkable pieces. To receive the most recent Occasional Miscellany or our monthly newsletter, click here. You can also sign up to receive notice of upcoming events and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

History

The Library Company is America’s first successful lending library and oldest cultural institution. It was founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin as a subscription library supported by its shareholders, as it is to this day.

During the early years of the United States, books were not widely available. Standard English reference works were expensive and difficult to find: they had to be shipped to the colonies from Europe, and the average person could not afford to purchase the books that well-rounded intellectuals thought worth reading.

In 1731, Benjamin Franklin convinced members of the Junto, his “society of mutual improvement,” to pool their resources and purchase a collection of books none could have afforded individually. Articles of Agreement were drafted on July 1, 1731, and the Library Company of Philadelphia was established when 50 founding shareholders signed on. Each contributed 40 shillings and agreed to pay ten shillings per year thereafter. As the Library Company’s collection grew, the book capital of each shareholder expanded as well.

The collections grew with the nation and reflect the country’s many faces and varied interests. From the Revolutionary War to 1800, when the national government was in Philadelphia, the Library Company also served as the Library of Congress. Until the 1850s it was the largest public library in America. All of the books the Library Company acquired year by year over more than two and a half centuries are still on its shelves, along with many others added since it was transformed into a research library in the 1950s. In the 21st century, the Library Company serves as a resource for a variety of readers, from high school students to senior scholars, from novelists to film producers, and anyone else with an interest in our collections.








SEE ALSO


REFERENCES

1. UShistory.org, "The Library Company," https://www.ushistory.org/franklin/philadelphia/library.htm (accessed July 1, 2020).

2. Wikipedia, "Library Company of Philadelphia," https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Library_Company_of_Philadelphia  (accessed July 1, 2020).

3. Benjamin Franklin Historical Society, "Lending Library," http://www.benjamin-franklin-history.org/lending-library/ (accessed July 1, 2020).

4. The Library Company of Philadelphia https://librarycompany.org/about-lcp/ (accessed July 1, 2020).


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