How Ben Franklin Invented the Library as We Know It

Books were rare and expensive in colonial America, but the founding father had an idea

a reading room inside a library
The Library Company reading room on Juniper Street in Philadelphia c. 1935, one of the group’s main locations from 1880 to 1935. The Library Company of Philadelphia

Founding father Benjamin Franklin knew better than most the benefits of self-education. In 1727, he established the Philadelphia-based discussion group known as the Junto, which sought “mutual improvement” through intellectual dialogue. Yet while Franklin enjoyed the Junto’s spirited—and secret—debates on matters moral and scientific, he became convinced that the group needed an authoritative library to referee basic facts. Books were rare and expensive in colonial America, but Franklin had an idea.

He conceived of a library with a subscription fee, the Library Company of Philadelphia, which he founded in 1731. The Library Company allowed members—at first, largely male artisans of modest means—to purchase shares in the library at a low cost. Members also built a sort of intellectual wealth with their shares, as they could be passed down from generation to generation. Since Franklin wished to ensure access to useful books, he favored volumes in English that could be more widely understood. The Library Company’s catalog would respond to readers’ fervent interests—and those readers kept multiplying: After early successes, the Library Company soon began allowing non-shareholders to borrow books, too, requiring only a small fee as collateral. This innovative structure quickly inspired imitators, and by 1800, there were more than 40 lending libraries throughout the United States. During the same era in Britain, philanthropists donated books to libraries for community enrichment, but only among the stacks; these libraries did not generally circulate books. In some instances, books were chained to bookshelves to prevent theft.

By 1771, as the Revolution neared, Franklin reflected in his autobiography on the lending library’s crucial role in fostering democracy: “These libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans” and “made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries.” From the Revolutionary War until 1800, the Library Company served as the first de facto Library of Congress while the federal government was in Philadelphia.

Still supported by shareholders, the Library Company today stands as an independent research library, free and open to the public. Some of its earliest holdings, such as Franklin’s original copy of Logic, or, the Art of Thinking by Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole, are preserved in its vast, non-circulating collection. Though the Library Company currently specializes in American history before 1900, its mission remains the same. “[The founders] knew that democracies were inherently fragile and that the only way you could sustain a democracy was by having an educated populace,” says Michael J. Barsanti, who served as director of the Library Company until this past February. “That’s one of our first, most important roles as an institution, and it’s one that we still have today. … We are trying to remind people, using the Junto as our inspiration, that … we learn best when we learn together.”

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This article is a selection from the April/May 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

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