In the first half of the eighteenth century, American libraries were limited to small collections of books in private homes, or at colleges and seminaries, of which there were only a handful. Even middle-class people had very limited access to books. And the range of books seldom went beyond the core curriculum of theology and classics that dominated American higher education, many of them written in Latin rather than English. Thus when Philadelphia’s Junto, a “club for mutual improvement” created by Benjamin Franklin, started a book service, it did more than create the first public library in North America. It charted a new course in general availability of reading materials.
The dues of Junto members were put toward the purchase of books. But those books were not kept exclusively for the private consumption of club members—the collection was also opened to the public. Books could be picked out, returned, or exchanged any Saturday from 4-8 p.m. This created access to books that most Philadelphians would otherwise have no hope of ever seeing, much less an opportunity to read.
Junto subscriptions were thus supporting a new form of charity, one that resonated with Franklin’s belief in the equalizing power of diffused knowledge. This circulating library’s success inspired similar efforts in other American cities during the 1740s. In Philadelphia, the Library Company continues to operate today as a nonprofit lending library, much as it did in the 1700s.