Libraries in Early America

Today’s Americans take the ability to freely check out books and other materials from their local libraries for granted. The opportunity for the average person to borrow books did not exist in America, however, until Benjamin Franklin suggested it to a group of his friends. In the eighteenth century, private libraries were common among wealthy people and churches sometimes had their own libraries. Franklin’s idea of a subscription library, however, was unique.

Since his club of local tradesmen was already holding regular meetings, Franklin suggested that they each bring books to the meetings so members could share. Although members brought books in, Franklin soon discovered that money was needed to supervise and maintain the collection. He tried to get subscribers from the club and elsewhere to pay a fee for the right to borrow from the collection, but there were few literate people in eighteenth century Philadelphia. The subscribers did raise enough money to hire a librarian, who kept the library open from two to three on Wednesdays and from ten to four on Saturdays. The fees also helped the library buy books from London on topics such as history, science, and politics. Anyone could look at the books in the library, but only subscribers could check them out.

Eventually subscription libraries appeared in all the American colonies. Franklin stated, “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.” Unfortunately, America’s libraries are currently suffering from budget cuts which threaten the services they provide as well as the existence of the libraries themselves. Americans must work to protect these educational institutions that students and others depend on for free access to knowledge.

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