This biography of Benjamin Franklin was researched
and written by Amy Ranger (then known as Amy Proni), for ILS 503,
Foundations of Librarianship,
Prof. Jodi Williams, Southern Connecticut State University, Spring
Individuals important to the field of librarianship and information science
It is difficult to describe Benjamin Franklin in only four or five paragraphs. It is not enough to say that he was a “renaissance man,” or that he was a man with ideas that were years ahead of his time, although he was both. Franklin is probably best remembered as a statesman: he helped draft both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. He was also a noted scientist and inventor, extremely curious about both natural phenomena and mechanical contraptions. Not as well known, though, are his contributions to librarianship.
Born in 1706, the 15th of 17 children, his formal education lasted about two years (Durham, 1997). He was apprenticed to his older brother James to learn the trade of printing at the age of 12. But after five years of ill treatment, Franklin ran away from Boston and ended up in Philadelphia, where he found work as a printer. It was during this time that he began a course of self-improvement which continued throughout his life: he exercised and bathed regularly, very unusual for that time, and spent at least one hour each day reading or studying (Schwartz, 2001). In 1728 Franklin organized a club called the Junto and limited it to twelve members who would discuss morals, politics, or natural philosophy every Friday evening (Durham, 1997). The first library in the American colonies was established at Harvard College in 1638, but no members of the general public had access to books until Franklin founded the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731. This became the first subscription library in the colonies. Franklin proposed to the members of the Junto that they house their books in a central location, so that they could have access to each other’s books and consult them during their meetings. In his Autobiography, Franklin states: So few were the Readers at that time in Philadelphia, and the Majority of us so poor, that I was not able with great Industry to find more than Fifty Persons, mostly young Tradesmen, willing to pay down for this purpose Forty Shillings each, and Ten Shillings per Annum. On this little Fund we began. (Korty, 1965). Twenty shillings equal one pound; at that time a substantial merchant had an annual income of about 100 pounds, a maid earned about 4 pounds. Forty shillings today is about $363.00.
The collection began with the books belonging to members and the Library Company ordered new books from a bookseller in England in March, 1732. These were received in October of that year. It was a practical library, suitable for young tradesmen, and composed of dictionaries, grammars, an atlas, histories, and books on science and agriculture. Franklin wrote the agreement for the first librarian, Louis Timothee, which provided for a salary and room rental of three pounds for the first three months, with a future salary to be arranged (Korty, 1965).
The public was allowed to use the books for reference and could borrow a book by putting a deposit down and paying a small fee. Members of the Pennsylvania Assembly and the Continental Congress were given access to the library at no charge.
Benjamin Franklin’s interest in self-improvement and sharing knowledge was a great influence in the American colonies. His work with the Library Company of Philadelphia led to the development of the Philadelphia Academy (which became the University of Pennsylvania) and the American Philosophical Society.
Franklin died on April 17, 1790. He left his shares in the Library Company to his grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, with the provision that he allow his brothers and sisters to share in the use of it as well.
Durham, Jennifer L. (1997) Benjamin Franklin, a biographical companion. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, Inc.
Schwarz, Stephan A. (2001). Dr. Franklin’s plan. Smithsonian, June, p. 112. Retrieved January 31, 2003, Infotrac.
Korty, Margaret Barton. (1965) Benjamin Franklin and eighteenth-century American libraries. Philadelphia: The
American Philosophical Society.
Information on the value of old money found February 1, 2003 at: http://www.ex.ac.uk/~RDavies/arian/current/howmuch.html