The oldest library in Philadelphia didn’t start out as a library. The Library Company of Philadelphia, founded by Ben Franklin in 1731, began as a community of people who wanted to learn together — a discussion group that called themselves the “Junto.” The Junto met weekly at the Indian Head tavern in Old City to discuss the issues of the day and to share information about what was going on in the city.
More than 286 years later, here in Philadelphia where Franklin’s contributions are still part of daily life, a program inspired by his Junto will start this month. The Ben Franklin Circles, a national project of New York’s 92nd Street Y, Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and Citizen University, will launch at the Library Company, coming full circle back to the Junto’s home, the first institution founded by that group.
Through organized group consideration of Franklin’s principles, the program’s goal is to build communities and help people think critically about their lives. The Circles don’t serve to celebrate Franklin or to hold him up as a role model, but rather to use the brilliant structure that he created to help people improve themselves by working together with a group of friends.
All libraries are built on communities. We associate them with books, but books are only a part of our work. After the great technological shifts of the last 30 years, and the rise of the Internet as the primary source of information for many, it’s easy to think that libraries are no longer relevant. When we look back to our roots, however, we see how libraries began as places for people to learn, to share opinions, to improve their lives, and to build a community. The need for those places is greater than it has ever been.
Franklin was far from perfect. But he knew he could change and improve himself. He had a program, described in his Autobiography, that revolved around working on 13 virtues — like “temperance,” “order,” “frugality,” and “industry.” He kept track of his performance with a scorecard to keep himself honest. In the Circles, groups around Philadelphia will gather monthly to talk about Franklin’s virtues, and how (and whether) those virtues are still relevant today. As they do so, they will be sharing stories, personal experiences, and advice while building connections. As the home of the Junto, the Library Company will be hosting one of these circles, but we hope that many Philadelphians will want to host others in their neighborhood libraries.
The Free Library of Philadelphia is reopening four extensively renovated neighborhood libraries, all newly configured as places for building community and sharing knowledge. You will see this idea reflected in every element of their design, including comfortable furniture meant to be a community’s “living room,” but many of the most important enhancements are behind the scenes — added training for librarians in organizing community programs, improved coordination between branches using a new “cluster” system, and a closer engagement with the Philadelphia public schools to improve the city’s educational resources.
Libraries are spaces for communities to learn and to connect with one another. This is deep in our DNA, a part of what we were founded to do. It’s also the most important function we have in our city at this time. As Philadelphia changes, it is at risk of becoming increasingly polarized, with communities isolated from and distrustful of each other. The work of libraries generally, and of the Ben Franklin Circles specifically, is to push against these tendencies, to get people talking to each other, to help people improve their communities by discussing what values we hold in common and how to put them in action.
In order to be admitted into Franklin’s Junto, you had to answer this question:
“Do you love truth for truth’s sake, and will you endeavor impartially to find and receive it yourself and communicate it to others?”
It’s an interesting question to ponder, and one that has become only more important in an environment noisy with disinformation and divisiveness. The Ben Franklin Circles will be places where people who love the truth will meet to find it and share it, improving themselves and those around them in the process. Just in time for New Year’s resolutions about self-improvement, we look forward to having these conversations about how we live and how we want to live.in neighborhoods throughout the city.
Michael Barsanti is the Edwin Wolf 2nd director of the Library Company of Philadelphia. firstname.lastname@example.org
Siobhan A. Reardon is president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia. email@example.com