Thank you, Benjamin Franklin.


What can I say? We’re library geeks. This stack is some of the materials Marion and I currently have checked out from the Chicago Public Library. By our standards, it’s a modest pile. Marion is a voracious reader; I’m a guy with good intentions. Inevitably, my eyes are bigger than my literary stomach, and many books return unopened. Again, what can I say?

We’ve always been library geeks. In St. Louis, librarians knew us and our children by name. We used to get invited to librarian-only parties. [To balance things out, I’d like to say here that we also used to get invited to staff-and-musician-only parties thrown by the crew of the Broadway Oyster Bar.] Daughter Claire has picked up the torch; she works in a library.

Growing up in St. Louis, I was blessed with access to an excellent library system [it was recently ranked second in the nation, in fact], and I discovered it early. Many of the city’s branch libraries were grand beaux arts structures, with ornate columns, profuse ornamentation, grand stone staircases and massive, heavy doors—especially to an eight-year-old on the skinny side. Beyond those heavy doors was a quiet sanctuary, elegant, ordered, cool in the summer and invitingly warm in the winter. And books. Mountains of them. Miles of them. All free for the taking—well, the borrowing. Even though I didn’t know the term business model back then, I wondered how they could possibly do this. Obviously, I was equally naive regarding taxes.

I only knew that they somehow did manage to do it and that, with my library card, I was in the club.

Anytime you have a great idea like this, everyone wants to take credit for it. As Wikipedia tells us, “Many claims have been made for the title of ‘first public library’ for various libraries in various countries, with at least some of the confusion arising from differing interpretations of what should be considered a true ‘public library’.” In ancient Rome, Greek and Roman scrolls were available to readers in the Roman baths; but these weren’t lending libraries—scrolls couldn’t be checked out.

benjamin-franklin.jpgIn the United States, Boston lays claim to the first town library, established in 1636. But most give credit to Benjamin Franklin for creating the first lending library. You have to wonder where he found the time. One of the nation’s founding fathers, he was also a printer, an author, satirist, politician, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman and diplomat.

For all the press Gutenberg gets for his printing press and how it brought books and knowledge to the masses, books were still very expensive, especially in America, and not readily available even to those of moderate means. In 1731, Franklin and a group of friends formed the Library Company of Philadelphia. It was set up as a subscription library; individuals bought shares, and the money was used to buy books. Members could then borrow books, making it possibly the first lending library. It is still in existence today, now operating as an independent, non-profit research library.

But with the Internet, do libraries still matter? Do books, for that matter? One word answer: One of the most successful businesses on the whole worldwide web is a book store. And yes, the marketing of books is changing. Life for independent booksellers like our friend Jun, who runs the wonderful Foto-Grafix Books in San Francisco, is more challenging than ever. But drop in any book store, independent or big box chain, and you’ll find people hungry for books. You’ll find us there too. Some books you just need to own, to flip through again and again. To just take pleasure in knowing that you own it.

You don’t have to own everything, though. In this acquisitive culture, I’m not sure everyone gets that. Our good friend Laura told us of discussing books at work. When she mentioned finding something at the library, her colleagues laughed. Not derisively—just in that confused, it-would-never-occur-to-me sort of way.

But that’s the beauty of libraries. They’re a great place to kick the tires on a new author or be pleasantly surprised by something that catches your eye as you get the library crick in your neck, scanning titles sideways. There’s also almost a perverse anti-ownership pleasure in knowing that others have read this book before you, and many more will read it after you do, part shared experience, part recycling smugness.

So, yeah, we’re library geeks. And perhaps geekiest of all, on more library visits than not, I silently thank Ben Franklin.




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9 Responses to “Thank you, Benjamin Franklin.”

  1. Ronnie Ann Says:

    When I wandered into the American Reading Council in 1986 to interview for a development director job, I knew almost nothing about the work they did nor how to do the job I wound up getting. But I met and became fast friends with the indefatigably determined Julia Palmer, who devoted her life to getting books into the hands of children (and adults) through well-designed, warm, friendly public libraries. When New York City cut back funding and therefore staffing and hours, she and other advocates led the opposition – and won. She also helped bring quality libraries, filled with books that kids really wanted to read, to after-school programs and public schools. If she were still with us, she’d be cheering your wonderful post. But since I am here…terrific post, Terry. Thank you and thank Ben Franklin (whom Julia would have had no shyness advising). There is nothing in the virtual realm that takes the place of a good book or the wonders of a good library, now offering real live books, CDs, and DVDs, as well as online access.

  2. Terry B Says:

    Ronnie—Thanks! For the praise, of course, but also for your wonderful story about Julia. You’ve shared other stories about her with me in the past, and she sounds like a remarkable woman. Knowing you’re a fellow library geek is just one more reason we’re such great friends.

  3. John Says:

    Thanks for that post with a brief account of the origins of the Library Company of Philadelphia. You might be interested to know that the Library Company is still around and flourishing — 276 years later! Check out our website — — to learn about all of our many programs and activities. Perhaps you might even consider becoming a member — a shareholder, to use Franklin’s parlance. We welcome all book lovers and those who wish to support the mission of a most unusual non-profit cultural institution.

  4. Terry B Says:

    John—Thank you for your great comment! Marion has already become a huge fan of your website. She just emailed me her favorite line from the site [so far]: “All of the books the Library Company acquired year by year over more than two and a half centuries are still on its shelves, along with many others added since it was transformed into a research library in the 1950s.”

    St. Louis has a library with a similarly rich history, the St. Louis Mercantile Library. Established in 1846, it is the oldest library west of the Mississippi River. Here is how its website charmingly describes the founding: “In December 1845, a group of St. Louis merchants met to form a general library, ‘where young men could pass their evenings agreeably and profitably, and thus be protected from the temptations to folly that ever beset unguarded youth in large towns.'”

    Housed downtown from its beginning, it finally moved to a new building on the campus of The University of Missouri-St.Louis in 1998.

    While I never joined the library, I have a particularly fond memory of it. A neighbor of mine, a retired illustrator for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was a member and regular visitor. But in the winter, he often had trouble getting downtown. So he would call the library and just tell them, “You know what I like.” Soon a bundle of books, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, would arrive at his door.

  5. Ronnie Ann Says:

    Love this exchange of info. Just had to add a couple more things:

    Your post and John’s remind me that my friend Julia used to take me to her favorite neighborhood library, The New York Society Library on East 79th Street in Manhattan. It’s New York’s oldest library founded in 1754 and supported by its members – and of course Julia was one of them. From its website “A subscription library, it now contains nearly three hundred thousand volumes — the result of the tastes of its members over almost the last quarter millennium.” (

    Also, Terry…your last line about the bundle of books arriving for your friend is one of the most touching displays of real community I’ve read in a long time. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that were the rule.

  6. Toni Says:

    Love this post, Terry, and the dialogue that it has spawned. My favorite thing about going to school in Washington D.C. was studying at the Library of Congress…..As much for those wonderful little lights with their green glass “shades”, as for the smell (I adore the smell of libraries!). And oh – yes – the books, too!! I have always had a library card, since I was a kid.

    When I was married and living in New Mexico, my husband was a retired editor. Meaning he was a professional reader. His idea was to insulate the house with books, and he did a pretty good job of it. When I moved to San Diego, I found myself with less room for books (though I have a wall of them in my office at home), and so I have fallen in love, all over again, with the library.

  7. Terry B Says:

    Ronnie—Wow, another wonderful library! I bet if you scratch any major or mid-sized city with any history to speak of, you’ll find an institution just like this.

    Toni—“Insulate the house with books”—what a wonderful way to describe walls of books! They not only insulate the house, but inoculate it against ignorance.

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    […] last week at the library [remember me geeking out about libraries recently?] I found this album, Trio Transition With Special Guest Oliver Lake. At six tracks and […]

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    […] Thank you, Benjamin Franklin. Sure, he was a founding father, inventor, statesman, author… but even cooler, he gave us public libraries. Read all about it, at WTF? Random food for thought. […]

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