The Library Company of Philadelphia is an independent research library specializing in American history and culture from the 17th through the 19th centuries. Open to the public free of charge, the Library Company houses an extensive collection of rare books, manuscripts, broadsides, ephemera, prints, photographs, and works of art. Founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin, the Library Company is America's oldest cultural institution and served as the Library of Congress from the Revolutionary War to 1800. The Library Company was the largest public library in America until the Civil War.
The mission of the Library Company is to foster scholarship in and increase public understanding of American history before 1900 by preserving, interpreting, making available, and augmenting the valuable materials in our care, thus providing meaningful stewardship of the legacy of founder Benjamin Franklin.
The Library Company is America’s first successful lending library and oldest cultural institution. It was founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin as a subscription library supported by its shareholders, as it is to this day.
During the early years of the United States, books were not widely available. Standard English reference works were expensive and difficult to find: they had to be shipped to the colonies from Europe, and the average person could not afford to purchase the books that well-rounded intellectuals thought worth reading.
In 1731, Benjamin Franklin convinced members of the Junto, his “society of mutual improvement,” to pool their resources and purchase a collection of books none could have afforded individually. Articles of Agreement were drafted on July 1, 1731, and the Library Company of Philadelphia was established when 50 founding shareholders signed on. Each contributed 40 shillings and agreed to pay ten shillings per year thereafter. As the Library Company’s collection grew, the book capital of each shareholder expanded as well.
The collections grew with the nation and reflect the country’s many faces and varied interests. From the Revolutionary War to 1800, when the national government was in Philadelphia, the Library Company also served as the Library of Congress. Until the 1850s it was the largest public library in America. All of the books the Library Company acquired year by year over more than two and a half centuries are still on its shelves, along with many others added since it was transformed into a research library in the 1950s. In the 21st century, the Library Company serves as a resource for a variety of readers, from high school students to senior scholars, from novelists to film producers, and anyone else with an interest in our collections. For more information, see the HISTORY section of the LCP web site.
The Library Company regularly presents exhibits, lectures, symposia, conferences, gallery talks, and other programs in order to make the collections accessible to the widest possible audience. For details on upcoming events, please see the EVENTS section of the website. Additionally, many of our EXHIBITIONS are available online.
A variety of resources are available to those unable to visit the Library Company in person. Our semi-annual newsletter (The Occasional Miscellany), monthly electronic newsletter, blog, and social media educate and inform on topics such as recent acquisitions, exhibitions, publications, and seminars, along with interesting features on our collection’s most remarkable pieces. You can sign up to receive notice of upcoming events on the LCP homepage, and follow us on Blogger, Flickr, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook (see above for some links).
Cover Image: W. Birch & Son, "Arch Street, with the Second Presbyterian Church" (Philadelphia, 1799). Engraving, hand-colored. Link to record on ImPAC, the Library Company’s digital collections catalog: goo.gl