The Library Company

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The Library Company of Philadelphia's charter, rules, and catalog of books, 1764. Courtesy of HathiTrust.

In pre-Revolutionary War America, books were hard to come by for anyone who was not wealthy or a member of the clergy. The expense and rarity of books meant that members of the middle or lower classes did not readily have access to reading material.

That changed in July 1731, when Founding Father Benjamin Franklin helped bring the membership library to the American colonies. Franklin worked with the other members of what was called the Junto, a club of thinkers that gathered to discuss "queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy," as Franklin described in his autobiography. Franklin and the other Junto members, primarily merchants, owned few books and were looking for a way to access more material for their weekly discussions.

Using money from the Junto members, alongside a forty-shilling investment from each of the library's first fifty members, Library Company organizers started its first collection. By 1732, they had sent the library's first book order to London. Though many of the library's early books were about education or religion, the collection expanded to feature broader topics. Notably, a majority of the Library Company's books were written in English. (At the time, most other private and university libraries had collections primarily in Latin.) Library members could access these books as they pleased, while non-members would need to provide collateral for their borrowed book.