In 1790, the townspeople of Franklin, Mass., decided they wanted a bell. They got the Franklin Library instead.
The library opened its doors to everyone in town, the first public library in the United States. It had another distinction: Benjamin Franklin started it.
In 1778, Franklin broke off from Wrentham, Mass., and planned to incorporate as the town of Exeter. But before official incorporation, someone changed the name to honor Benjamin Franklin. Word had arrived that Franklin gained French support for the American Revolution, key to American victory.
Seven years later, someone — his name unknown today — approached Franklin and reminded him of the honor the town had given him. He suggested Franklin reciprocate by donating a bell for a steeple the town wanted to build on its meeting house.
Franklin commented in a letter to Dr. Richard Price that the ‘country people’ of Franklin should spare “…themselves the Expense of a Steeple at present, and that they would accept a gift of Books instead of a Bell, Sense being preferable to Sound.” He noted the poverty of the town, and commented it no more needed a bell than a toad needed a tail.
Franklin asked Price, then in London, to select proper books for the people of Franklin. Price’s selection included history and theology books. (For a list of the books, click here.)
The Franklin Library
The books, 116 of them, arrived some time before June 22, 1786. Within a year, the townspeople started squabbling over who could use the Franklin Library. The town voted to only allow members of the Congregational Church to use it. But some families lived so far from the church they attended other Congregational churches.
The town resolved the issue at Town Meeting on Nov. 26, 1790:
That the Rev. Nathaniel Emmons be Directed to lend the Books presented to this town by the late Dr. Franklin to the Inhabitants of this town at large, and until the town shall order other ways, they being accountable to him for the use and improvement of said books.
A bookcase held the Franklin Library at the home of Rev. Emmons while he served as minister of the Congregational Church. By the mid-19th century, the town kept the library in a barn. A library association was formed to find a place for the books. They moved around until 1904, when the Ray family donated a building. The library renovated the structure and reopened in 2017.
Horace Mann, a Franklin native and the father of American public education, was enthralled by several books he found in the library.
“Had I the power, I would scatter libraries over the whole land, as the sower sows his wheat field,” Mann said.
This story about the Franklin Library was updated in 2022.