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The Library Company of Philadelphia

The Library Company of Philadelphia is America’s 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. From the Revolution War to 1800, when the national government was in Philadelphia, it also served as the library of Congress. Until the 1850’s it was the largest public library in America.

Photo: Library and Surgenon’s Hall, Firth-street Engraving, 1800, by William Birch.

In 1785 the Company purchased a collection of Revolutionary broadsheets pamphlets and other ephemera that had been assiduously collected by a would-be historian, of which no other copies have survived.

Permanent quarters were established for the Library Company in 1789 with the purchase of a lot on Fifth Street near Chestnut across from State House Square. A competition for the design of a building was won by an amateur of architecture, Dr. William Thornton, with a plan for a Palladian red-brick structure with white pilasters and a pediment interrupting a balustraded roof. A curving double flight of steps led up to the arched door under an arched niche containing a gift from William Bingham — a marble statue of Franklin in a classical toga sculpted in Italy by Francesco Lazzarini. Member’s shares were extended to carpenters and bricklayers in partial payment for work on the new building. The new quarters were opened on New Year’s Day, 1791. For the new library Samuel Jennings, an expatriate Philadelphian living in London, painted a large picture, “Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences.”

The Library Company’s collections grew with the nation and reflect the country’s many faces and varied interests. 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 1950’s. In the 21 st 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.

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