If you’ve ever wanted a chance to look at Benjamin Franklin’s original sketch of bifocal lenses or read the affectionate letters he exchanged with his wife, Deborah, now’s your chance.
The Library of Congress has digitized its collection of Franklin’s papers, including approximately 8,000 of his personal letters, scientific drawings, and documents from his career as a statesman and diplomat. They are accessible online through the Library of Congress website.
This is only a portion of the highly prolific Founding Father’s known manuscripts, most of which are housed in Philadelphia. The American Philosophical Society in Society Hill holds about 70 percent of Franklin’s papers, and there are significant collections at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania on Locust Street and at the University of Pennsylvania.
“People have always been interested in Benjamin Franklin because he was a statesman at the local, national, and imperial level,” said Julie Miller, curator of early-American manuscripts at the Library of Congress. “And he was just personally really interesting.”
The newly digitized collection includes Franklin’s attempt to explain the effect of electricity on a church steeple, his dissatisfaction with the selection of the bald eagle as our country’s representative bird, and the letters he exchanged with his son, loyalist William Franklin, before their estrangement due to political differences.
It also includes Franklin’s copies of the First Continental Congress petition he presented in 1774 to King George III, outlining the colonies’ grievances. Also digitized in the online collection are Franklin’s drafts for the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War and recognized American independence.
Hamilton’s online, too
The Library of Congress began digitizing papers by American historical figures in the 1990s, starting with presidents. In recent years, it has expanded the program to include other important people, such as Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Although the transcribed contents of Franklin’s papers have been published before, Miller said looking at original manuscripts allows readers to see Franklin’s hand. He frequently included drawings with his papers to illustrate his ideas and scribbled in the margins of his letters.
“Sometimes the transcription doesn’t fully represent the letter,” Miller said. “The original manuscripts show how messy the letter was. You can picture them writing in candlelight and understand their thinking process a little better.”
Unfortunately, many people today don’t have the ability to read and understand letters written in the 1700s because of language and handwriting differences, Miller said. “I’m hoping that the digitization will prompt people to develop an interest in reading 18th-century writing.”
“By reading those letters, we can understand how people lived and thought and how their ideas shaped the world we live in today,” she said.
Patrick Spero, the librarian and director of the American Philosophical Society Library, said the more access people have to Franklin, the better.
“The originals can often spur an interest and fascination with the past that is hard to replicate,” he said. “It can get students and the general public interested in history, and scholars might discover new things from things they see on the originals.”
Though the American Philosophical Society has not conducted a sweeping digitization of its Franklin papers, its staff regularly digitizes papers for The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, a collaboration with Yale University. Most recently, it digitized Franklin’s post office book, which had not been previously transcribed.
“Because a lot of Franklin’s papers were destroyed by the British when they were in Philadelphia, we want to preserve what we have,” Spero said. “Digitization is a way to do that.”
Miller said the Library of Congress works closely with teachers to help bring primary sources like Franklin’s letters into the classroom.
“If kids in school can spend some time with a letter by Benjamin Franklin and understand something about what he produced 200 years ago, then that’s awesome,” she said. “A lot of how we write has changed very dramatically, but the letters are meaningful because they help us understand how Franklin communicated.”