March 06, 2009

Book it

The Library Company of Philadelphia. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

El Cabrero has been musing lately on the long, active and generally useful life of Benjamin Franklin. His life is, among other things, a textbook example of the usefulness of social capital in making good things happen.

As mentioned in previous posts, Franklin and friends formed a discussion group called the Junto to discuss important issues of morals, politics, and such. Sometimes these discussions yielded very practical results. One such discussion mentioned yesterday led to the formation of a pretty sophisticated volunteer fire department.

Another such outgrowth was a lending library. During one of the Junto meetings around 1731, Franklin recalled that

a proposition was made by me, that, since our books were often referr'd to in our disquisitions upon the queries, it might be convenient to us to have them altogether where we met, that upon occasion they might be consulted; and by thus clubbing our books to a common library, we should, while we lik'd to keep them together, have each of us the advantage of using the books of all the other members, which would be nearly as beneficial as if each owned the whole.

That arrangement worked well enough for around a year, at which time he took the idea to a different level:

And now I set on foot my first project of a public nature, that for a subscription library. I drew up the proposals, got them put into form...and, by the help of my friends in the Junto, procured fifty subscribers of forty shillings each to begin with, and ten shillings a year for fifty years, the term our company was to continue. We afterwards obtain'd a charter, the company being increased to one hundred: this was the mother of all the North American subscription libraries, now so numerous. It has become a great thing itself, and continually increasing. These libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defence of their privileges.

The Library Company of Philadelphia is still in existence today and these early subscription libraries helped pave the way for US public libraries as we know them today.

Not too shabby.

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