On November 14, 1732, the Library Company of Philadelphia signed a contract with its first librarian. Founded by Benjamin Franklin and friends in November 1731, the library enrolled members for a fee of forty shillings but had to wait for books to arrive from England before beginning full operation.
Many subscription libraries—founded to benefit academies, colleges, and other groups—were established from the late seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. The Library Company of Philadelphia grew out of the needs of the Leather Apron Club, also known as the “Junto,” of which Franklin was a member. In addition to exchanging business information, these merchants discussed politics and natural philosophy, contributing to their requirements for books to satisfy their widespread interests. Volumes were purchased with the annual contributions of shareholders, building a more comprehensive library than any individual could afford.
Directors of the Library Company made their holdings available to the first Continental Congress when it convened in Philadelphia in September 1774. Their offer is recorded in the Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789:
Extract from minutes of the directors of the Library Company of Philadelphia, dated August 31 st .,—directed to the President, was read, as follows:
Upon motion, ordered,
That the Librarian furnish the gentlemen, who are to meet in Congress, with the use of such Books as they may have occasion for, during their sitting, taking a receipt for them. By order of the Directors,
(Signed) William Attmore, Sec’y.
Ordered, That the thanks of the Congress be returned to the Directors of the Library Company of Philadelphia, for their obliging order.
Tuesday, September 6, 1774. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875. Law Library
After independence, the third session of the new Federal Congress convened in Philadelphia in January 1791, and the Library Company directors again tendered use of their facility. In essence, the Library Company served as the de facto Library of Congress until 1800 when the fledgling legislature moved to its permanent Washington, D.C., location and the Library of Congress was founded.
Many other subscription libraries developed in the United States. These include the Boston Athenaeum External in Massachusetts (1807); Willoughby Township Library External in Ohio (1827); Onarga Community Library External in Illinois (1858); Aberdeen Free Library Association in the Dakota Territory (1884); and Grand Junction library External in Colorado (1897).
The advent of free public libraries, supported in large part by Andrew Carnegie, diminished the subscription library’s importance. Today, subscription libraries, with their rich holdings of rare books, prints, and photographs, are enormously valuable to students of United States history and culture.