The Public Library Association will host its biennial conference this month in Philadelphia. The city is a fitting location, having influenced the development of libraries since before the nation’s founding.
Benjamin Franklin founded the Library Company in 1731. The institution — which exists to this day — was the first of its kind, offering access to a collection of books for a subscription fee. The Library Company’s model was an extension of the knowledge-sharing system that served as the basis of Franklin’s intellectual group “Junto,” a circle of 12 Philadelphians who privately shared books and discussed solutions to social and political problems.
Despite the pivotal role Franklin and his club played in shaping the concept of the modern library, Philadelphia would not have a free public lending library until more than a century and a half later. Darby, in Delaware County, holds the distinction for founding the first public library, which has operated since 1743. The first taxpayer-supported library, however, opened in 1833 in Peterborough, N.H. This successful experiment inspired the New Hampshire legislature to pass a law enabling towns and cities to establish free public libraries.
In Philadelphia, Dr. William Pepper hatched the idea for a city-funded library in the 1880s. Pepper exerted an outsized influence on Philadelphia’s cultural and intellectual institutions, serving in a number of high-level academic and civic roles throughout his life. He became the provost of the University of Pennsylvania in 1881, overseeing one of the university’s most rapid expansions; during his tenure the number of faculty leaped from 42 to 245 and its programs increased to include the Wharton School of Business and the Graduate School of Arts and Science.
Encouraged by a new state law permitting the establishment of municipal libraries, Pepper in 1887 organized a campaign to found a free public lending library in Philadelphia. The effort took years to gain steam. Pepper’s affluent uncle, George S. Pepper, had bequeathed $250,000 in his will for the founding of a library, but upon his death in 1890 a legal conflict ensued that pitted private libraries against William Pepper and his plan for a public library.
While the dispute played out in the courts, Pepper moved forward, securing a charter for the library in 1891 and working with the city to pilot small branches of a nascent library system in conjunction with the Board of Education. The legal battles over the seed funding concluded in 1894, with the courts ruling in Pepper’s favor. The Free Library opened its first central branch in City Hall in March of the same year.
Regarding the city’s new public library, Pepper grandly proclaimed: “This is the People’s Library, absolutely free to all.” The library’s leadership dreamed of a large headquarters to house the central branch, but it would take decades to accomplish this vision. Pepper — who led the library until his death in 1898 — nonetheless oversaw the swift growth of the Free Library’s services and reach. During his four years in charge, the library’s staff grew to 160, its collection expanded to 250,000 items, and it broke a world record for highest circulation, which reached 1,778,387.
After bouncing around several more locations in the city, the Free Library’s central branch finally received an august headquarters of its own in 1927 when its current structure — designed by architect Horace Trumbauer — officially opened on what is now known as the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Today, the library stands as one of the city’s cultural keystones, providing educational enrichment and a vital social utility connecting residents with job opportunities and health-care information. The library has also cultivated an impressive archive of priceless historical materials over the years, ranging from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music — the world’s largest lending collection of orchestral sheet music — to prints by Andy Warhol.
Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. firstname.lastname@example.org
On May 17, HSP will honor the Free Library of Philadelphia’s director and president, Siobhan A. Reardon, with the Heritage Award at HSP’s Founders Award gala at the Independence Seaport Museum. Visit hsp.org/founders to learn more.