In 1727, Benjamin Franklin and several friends established a “club of mutual improvement” called the Junto which met in a Philadelphia alehouse each Friday evening. There they held lively discussions of politics, morals and philosophy. Eventually, they left this ale-infused atmosphere for a quieter meeting place in the home of one of the wealthier members. To aid the group’s quest for knowledge, Franklin developed a plan for a public library.

Franklin was a natural student. Though he had excelled at Boston Latin School, Franklin’s father abruptly ended the boy’s formal education at age 10 and set him to work. Unable to continue formal education, Franklin spent one or two hours every day immersed in borrowed books. Through this independent study Franklin “repaired in some degree the loss of the learned education my father once intended for me.”   Eager to study with others, Franklin wrote a series of questions for the Junto to discuss each week, such as, “Have you met with anything in the author you last read, remarkable, or suitable to be communicated?” but exploring topics was troublesome because books were expensive, bookshops were rare and the Junto members were mostly young tradesmen who had little money. Franklin’s solution was to pool the books they owned and collectively buy more.

On July 1, 1731, Franklin created the “Library Company” with 50 founding members each donating 40 shillings to start and promised an additional 10 shillings annually.  These funds allowed Franklin to acquire a collection of books and allow grow the library each year.  The Library Company was open only on Saturdays from 4 to 8 p.m and was open to both members and non-members but non-members had to offer collateral in case books were never returned.

This plan was a great success. The library’s patrons expanded beyond the membership of the Junto. And in Philadelphia, reading become fashionable. Visitors to the city were impressed by the intelligence of the citizens, whose sophistication outshone inhabitants of foreign cities. Soon other colonial cities followed Philadelphia’s lead, establishing their own libraries.

While most Americans believe Franklin’s was the first free public library in British North America, that is simply not true. Like many things Benjamin Franklin is famous for, the idea of the Junta and the Library Company was borrowed from others. 

Constructed in 1644 for the Reverend John Lothrop, founder of Barnstable Sturgis Library on Cape Cod is the oldest public library in the United States. Reverend Lothrop used the front room of his house for public worship, and in this room he kept a large collection of mostly religious books.  Then, of course, there’s Harvard where the library began with a 400-book donation by a Massachusetts clergyman John Harvard in 1636 to a new university that eventually honored him by adopting his name.  Closer to home is The Darby Free Library in Darby, Pennsylvania, which has been in continuous service since 1743.

Franklin’s Library was, however, unique in that it was open to all and had a vary eclectic and diverse collection.  The Library Company of Philadelphia would not only be the blueprint for free public libraries across America but also the driving force in creating the Library of Congress in 1802. Following the burning of Washington DC, Library of Congress bought Thomas Jefferson’s vast collection of books used that as a foundation to rebuild.  Coupled with waves of immigration, the philosophy of free public education and free public libraries drove economic prosperity and growth of the new nation.  Catapulting the United States from a fledgling agrarian society to the worlds richest most prosperous nation with a GDP 50% larger than its closest rival.  So, for those of you who want to “make America great again,” the formula was set down by Ben Franklin.  Learn, Teach, Do, and Welcome All who will join you.  Its really simple but it takes great courage and a passion for learning.

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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