American History

#OTD 1732: Benjamin Franklin Founded the Library Company of Philadelphia & Signed a Contract with its First Librarian

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#AceHistoryDesk – Today in History – On November 14, 1732, the Library Company of Philadelphia signed a contract with its first librarian.

Benjamin Franklin opening first subscription library in Philadelphia. Photograph of a painting by Charles E. Mills, between 1900 and 1912. cFranklin Foundation. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

Founded by Benjamin Franklin and friends in November 1731, the library enrolled members for a fee of forty shillings but had to wait for books to arrive from England before beginning full operation.

The Library Company

Many subscription libraries—founded to benefit academies, colleges, and other groups—were established from the late seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. The Library Company of Philadelphia grew out of the needs of the Leather Apron Club, also known as the “Junto,” of which Franklin was a member. In addition to exchanging business information, these merchants discussed politics and natural philosophy, contributing to their requirements for books to satisfy their widespread interests. Volumes were purchased with the annual contributions of shareholders, building a more comprehensive library than any individual could afford.

Directors of the Library Company made their holdings available to the first Continental Congress when it convened in Philadelphia in September 1774. Their offer is recorded in the Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789:

Extract from minutes of the directors of the Library Company of Philadelphia, dated August 31st.,—directed to the President, was read, as follows:

Upon motion, ordered, 
That the Librarian furnish the gentlemen, who are to meet in Congress, with the use of such Books as they may have occasion for, during their sitting, taking a receipt for them. 
By order of the Directors, 
(Signed) William Attmore, Sec’y.

Ordered, That the thanks of the Congress be returned to the Directors of the Library Company of Philadelphia, for their obliging order.

Tuesday, September 6, 1774Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875. Law Librarynone

After independence, the third session of the new Federal Congress convened in Philadelphia in January 1791, and the Library Company directors again tendered use of their facility.

In essence, the Library Company served as the de facto Library of Congress until 1800 when the fledgling legislature moved to its permanent Washington, D.C., location and the Library of Congress was founded.

Many other subscription libraries developed in the United States. These include the Boston Athenaeum in Massachusetts (1807); Willoughby Township Library in Ohio (1827); Onarga Community Library in Illinois (1858); Aberdeen Free Library Association in the Dakota Territory (1884); and Grand Junction library in Colorado (1897).

The advent of free public libraries, supported in large part by Andrew Carnegie, diminished the subscription library’s importance.

Today, subscription libraries, with their rich holdings of rare books, prints, and photographs, are enormously valuable to students of United States history and culture.

Athenaeum, Boston, Mass. c1906. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

Learn More

American composer Aaron Copland was born on November 14, 1900, in Brooklyn, New York. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Copland had decided by age fifteen to become a composer. After graduating from high school, he did not go to college: instead, he played the piano at venues in New York’s Catskill Mountains, among other places, before journeying to Paris in 1921 to study with the great composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. Returning to the United States in 1924, Copland embarked on a life as an independent composer, working on commissions and writing, lecturing, teaching, and conducting, nurtured by his association with other artists in creative ventures such as the MacDowell Colony and Tanglewood.

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