Ben Franklin: The Ultimate Bibliophile

By Carrie Mcbride, Blog Editor
January 17, 2020
portrait of Benjamin Franklin

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: psnypl_coll_001

Benjamin Franklin's contributions to science, politics, and diplomacy are immense, but his passion for and support of books and libraries is what has endeared him to us most here at the Library. Below you'll find some examples to illustrate this lifelong fervor:

Will Eat Veggies for Books

Franklin only had a few years of formal education, but had a hunger to read and learn from an early age. From his autobiography: "From a Child I was fond of Reading, and all the little Money that came into my Hands was ever laid out in Books." In fact, for a time, as a young teen, he pragmatically stopped eating meat in favor of vegetables and grains in order to add the saved money to his book fund.

The Library Company

In Franklin's day, books were prohibitively expensive. In 1731 Franklin convinced the members of his Junto (a mutual improvement club he founded) to pool their money to purchase books they would collectively share. The collection became the Library Company of Philadelphia—North America's first subscription library giving access to the shareholders and, later, to others who left a deposit equal to the value of the book (and then returned). The Library Company of Philadelphia still thrives today and is considered the predecessor to the public library. 

You Get a Library! And You Get a Library! Everybody Gets a Library!

The Library Company wasn't the only library founding Franklin had a hand in. He was also instrumental in the establishment of the Library of the Pennsylvania Hospital (North America's first medical library), the Pennsylvania State Library, The Library of the American Philosophical Society, and the Library of the University of Pennsylvania.

From Printer's Apprentice to Publisher

A young Franklin began learning the printing business at age 12 when he was apprenticed to his brother James in Boston. He spent much of his early career working in print shops in Philadelphia and London before striking out on his own, eventually publishing the weekly newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, books (hymns, travel guides, and even a book of fiction) and the annual Poor Richard’s Almanack, which sold up to 10,000 copies every year. Although he would dabble in many fields throughout his life, he always thought of himself as a printer.  

Franklin Proposed Axing 6 Letters from the Alphabet 

It seems Franklin could find room for improvement everywhere including something as fundamental as the English alphabet. Thinking it irrational and overly complicated, Franklin devised his own "Franklin Fonetic" version which removed six letters (C, J, Q, W, X, and Y), added six new ones, and limited the number of sounds a letter could make to one. As you may have noticed, his proposed alphabet was never adopted.

The Library Chair

Franklin seemed to have a mind always in search of a problem to solve and is credited with many inventions, including a few to benefit his love for books. Standing about 5'9" tall, just out of reach of many of his shelves, he designed a special chair for his library which converted into a step ladder (possibly based on chairs he'd seen while traveling in Europe).

Can You Reach it Now? How About Now?

Having solved the problem of not having long enough legs, Franklin also invented something he called the "Long Arm" to take down and replace books on upper shelves. It was an 8' long piece of wood with two "fingers" on the end that could be brought together by pulling a cable to grip onto a book. (Can you imagine how many plastic bags Ben could have removed from trees?)

Ben Franklin's bifocals

Franklin’s letter to George Whatley describing "double spectacles," Library of Congress

Am I Seeing Double?

As Franklin aged, his eyesight deteriorated—distressing for someone with such a passion for reading. To avoid carrying two pairs of glasses, he instructed his optician to slice his long distance lenses and his reading lenses and fuse them together into "double spectacles," what we now know as "bifocals." There is some dispute whether this was his original idea or if he was just an early adopter, but, regardless, the popularity of bifocals can be attributed to Franklin's evangelization of the technology.

Book Fever

As he was more and more successful in business, Franklin was able to amass an impressive private library. At his death in 1790 he owned an estimated 4,276 volumes. Many were sold off after his death by his grandson William Temple Franklin and researchers have painstakingly created an inventory of his diverse collection

Parting Words (Almost)

If you visit Franklin's burial site in Philadelphia you will find that this man of letters has a very simple epitaph ("Benjamin and Deborah Franklin"), but as a young man he had composed a much loftier one that aptly captures what was really important to him in life:

The Body of B. Franklin Printer; Like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be wholly lost: For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and Amended By the Author.

Did this list whet your appetite for more Franklin knowledge? The library has dozens of books about Franklin for you to check out.