Why Did Benjamin Franklin Open the First Public Library?

Franklin established the first U.S. public library in 1731.
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At 21, Benjamin Franklin was a man on the move. He was a successful Philadelphia printer and an intellectual. In 1727, 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.

1 Filling a Void

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. Franklin didn't let this setback interfere with learning. Each day he spent one or two hours immersed in borrowed books. Through this independent study Franklin hoped to make up for his lack of schooling. He believed reading “repaired in some degree the loss of the learned education my father once intended for me.” Franklin continued to exercise his writing skills, as well. His brother James, a newspaper publisher, unknowingly printed several of Franklin’s pieces under the pen name Mrs. Silence Dogood. His brother was livid upon discovering the deception, so Franklin found other outlets for his creative works.

2 The Grand Plan

Franklin wanted the joy he found in the written word throughout the community. He observed, “Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.” Eager to study with others, Franklin wrote a series of questions for the Junto to discuss each week, such as, “Have you met with any thing in the author you last read, remarkable, or suitable to be communicated?” Exploring topics was troublesome because books were expensive, bookshops were rare and club members, “mostly young tradesmen,” had little money for such luxuries. Franklin's solution was to pool the books they owned and collectively buy more.

3 At the Start

Franklin apparently loved organization almost as much as learning. On July 1, 1731, Franklin took the initiative and drafted an action plan and rules for the "Library Company." Fifty founding members donated 40 shillings to begin the collection and promised an additional 10 shillings annually to allow the library to grow. The Library Company, set up in the home of the librarian, was open only on Saturdays from 4 to 8 p.m. Members had free rein, but, if they lost a book, they were fined twice its price. Non-members were welcome to use the collection, but they had to offer collateral in case books were never returned.

4 The Legacy

Ben Franklin’s plan was a great success. The library’s patrons expanded beyond the membership of the Junto. In fact, “Reading become fashionable.” Franklin proudly noted that visitors to the city were impressed by the intelligence of the citizens, whose sophistication outshone inhabitants of foreign cities. Other colonial cities followed Philadelphia's lead, establishing their own libraries. The Library Company grew, collecting books and other materials, including a mummy’s hand, a telescope, a microscope, coins and fossils. The expanding collection changed locations several times, until 1966, when it found a home on Locust Street. As of 2013, the Library Company holds rare books, manuscripts, prints, photographs and works of art. The non-circulating collection is available at no cost by the visiting public. Franklin would undoubtedly be pleased by its continued existence, having once said, “The doors of wisdom are never shut.”

Living in upstate New York, Susan Sherwood is a researcher who has been writing within educational settings for more than 10 years. She has co-authored papers for Horizons Research, Inc. and the Capital Region Science Education Partnership. Sherwood has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University at Albany.