J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, October 09, 2013

The Long Fight over Franklin’s Library

Yesterday I described the arrival of a set of books in Franklin, Massachusetts, the result of a financial gift from Benjamin Franklin (and a donation in kind from his friend and conduit, the Rev. Richard Price). The town’s minister, the Rev. Nathaniel Emmons, later recalled that gift in his memoir:
My own congregation had a pretty parish library, when I was settled among them; and in the year 1786, Dr. Franklin presented them a donation of some of the most celebrated English authors. By these means I generally had a supply of all those kinds of books which were necessary and useful to a divine; and I never wished for others, because I meant to confine my studies to my own profession, and not waste time in acquiring mere speculative knowledge.
Note that Emmons was treating the books as his own. He kept them proudly in his parsonage. He consulted them. And he apparently made them available to members of his congregation—but only to them.

That was the basis of a new controversy. Had Dr. Franklin donated those books to the church or the whole town? Massachusetts still had a Congregationalist establishment, obliterating the line between church and state. Emmons was conservative theologically and politically, insisting on the privileges of his traditional, Trinitarian, and Calvinist ministry.

In June 1789, according to an 1879 town history, the town of Franklin instructed Emmons to lend out the books “according to the directions in the letter accompanying said library.” But conveniently, that letter had disappeared. On 20 Nov 1790 the town voted that the books should be available “to the inhabitants of the town at large until the town shall order otherwise.” That’s the town’s basis for claiming it has the oldest public lending library in the U.S. of A.

The town’s Congregationalist ministers continued to have custody of the books, but they were supposed to let anyone consult or borrow them. Gradually those titles became less interesting to people as other books and reading material proliferated in the early 1800s. By 1840, a town committee discovered, Franklin’s original library had been “stowed away in its venerable book-case in a barn.” Sixteen years later, another investigation led to the formation of a Library Association to preserve and manage those volumes.

In 1869 two citizens volunteered $100 each for a new library, and some town natives who had moved out and become rich sent back more donations. Locals then formed the Franklin Library Association as a “stock company,” which took charge of what remained of the Franklin books. Finally the whole library was turned over to the town, which promised an annual appropriation ($400 at first) and the “dog money”—fees for dog licenses. Presently the remaining titles bought for Dr. Franklin—now well over 200 years old—are on display in the town’s Ray Memorial Library Building.

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