today is one of those library firsts days

Today is, if you believe The Writer’s Almanac, the date in 1731 that Ben Franklin founded the first circulating library. The blurb is neat to read but short on references, so here is me fleshing it out a little.

It was on this day in 1731 that Ben Franklin founded the first circulating library, a forerunner to the now ubiquitous free public library. He started it as a way to help settle intellectual arguments among his group of Philadelphia friends, the Junto, a group of civic-minded individuals gathered together to discuss the important issues of their day.

Each of the 50 charter members bought an initial share into the company (40 shillings), which helped fund the buying of books, and then paid a smaller yearly fee (10 shillings) that went to buying more books and maintaining the library. In exchange, the members could borrow any of the books. Donations of books were gladly accepted.

They called their charter the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the next year, Franklin hired America’s first librarian, Louis Timothee. At first, the books were stored at the librarian’s house, but by the end of the decade, they were moved to the Pennsylvania State House, which is now known as Independence Hall.

2 thoughts on “today is one of those library firsts days

  1. Along these lines our (Oregon) State Librarian wrote a piece about the beginnings of library service in Oregon in Letters to Libraries, . Just thought you might find it interesting.


    P.S. (From the State Librarian)

    In honor of Oregon’s Sesquicentennial, I continue to devote my column to brief sketches of early Oregon libraries. The beginnings of library service in 19th Oregon is interesting and deserves to be better known and appreciated by people who work in libraries today.

    The Multnomah Circulating Library, located in Oregon City, was the first community subscription library in the Oregon country. It was created to serve one of the first communities established in the Oregon country, sometime around 1840. William H. Gray, who was a former member of the Whitman Mission, and who would go on to write the first history of Oregon, was the organizer of this library, located in his home. He describes the founding of the library as follows:

    “One hundred shares were taken at five dollars a share; three hundred volumes of old books [were] collected and placed in this institution … [and] one hundred dollars were sent to New York for new books which arrived the following year.”

    In an interesting footnote, Gray reported that representatives of the Methodist Mission founded by Jason Lee “seemed anxious to keep from the library a certain class of light reading, which they appeared tenacious about.”

    What is interesting about this library is the fact that it was founded so early in the American settlement of Oregon, when there were only a few hundred settlers in the Willamette Valley. Maybe this was the reason that the library apparently struggled to sustain itself, and there is no record of it after 1849.

    Subscription libraries were still the common way of establishing library service before about the middle of the 19th century, following the model established by Benjamin Franklin and his famous Library Company of Philadelphia in the 18th century. Subscription libraries had two major shortcomings. Most were hard to maintain financially, and none of them provided free books for all. They only served those who could afford a subscription.

    It wasn’t until 1854, with the founding of the Boston Public Library, that a new model of tax-supported libraries operated by local governments, and serving everyone, would begin to take hold in the Northeast and spread across the country. The story of the Multnomah Circulating Library is not untypical in Oregon, as most of the 19th century subscription libraries struggled to survive, and many failed or were able to limp along before being taken over by local governments in Oregon beginning after 1901. – Jim Scheppke

Comments are closed.