The signs on the roads leading into Franklin, Massachusetts, where we are staying, say "Home of the Nation's First Library." So naturally we had to investigate.
Our first impression of this huge, solid, square stone edifice with heavy, tall brass doors was that it must have been a solid old bank building converted to a library. The dark wood and marble floors inside strengthened this hunch. But we were dead wrong - this building was built specifically as a Franklin Public Library library, dedicated in 1904 and presented to the town by the Ray family, as the Ray Memorial Building. From 1904 till 1981, the Franklin Library Association ran the library, after which it became an official department of the City of Franklin.
So how could it be the nation's first public library? The first clue is the small glass-doored bookcase just opposite the circulation desk. It holds a collection of very, very old books -- in fact, eighteenth century books, bound in leather -- which were presented by the town's namesake, Benjamin Franklin.
From the library flyer: "In 1778, when the town was incorporated, the designated name Exeter, was changed to Franklin in honor of Dr. Benjamin Franklin. In return Franklin was asked to donate a bell for the town's church steeple. Acknowledging that "sense" was preferable to "sound", Dr. Franklin responded with an offer of books for the use of the town's residents."
He commissioned a London book dealer to provide an assortment of worthwhile books, which include many collections of sermons, the works of John Locke in four volumes, commentaries on law by Baron Montesquieu and Blackstone, some English commentaries on "the war with America", and some memoirs and essays by English writers no doubt eminent at the time.
When the books arrived, the town had to decide how to handle this new responsibility. In the typical deliberative New England town meeting fashion, debates took place over several months, the major issues being a) who could borrow them and b) how would the library be supported from then on. Just as we have been learning from our genealogical researches, the records are all there, written down by the town clerk for the benefit of posterity (that's us.)
From September 1788 until December 24, 1790, the debate simmered through the town meetings. The final regulations can bring joy to the heart of any Benjamin Franklin's gift librarian (or library user, for that matter):
"Dec. 24, 1790 -Voted. Whereas, it appears to this town that the principal design of the late Dr. Franklin in making a donation of Books as the foundation of a Parish Library in this place was to furnish this People with the Means of attaining to greater degrees of Useful Knowledge & to improve their minds to the best purpose, Especially if they should agree to second his views and build on the foundation he has laid by purchasing a Number of Valuable Books in addition, that so the Whole may contain a sufficient Number to accommodate each proprietor so often as he may incline to apply for a Book. But by reason of Disputes Respecting the property of the Donation and doubts whether the town without the aid of the General Court can vote a Legal Tax to raise Money for the purpose of purchasing an additional Number of Books the Generous design of the Doctor has hitherto failed of its desired Effect, - therefore to end disputes Concerning the property of the Donation and to render a tax Needless for raising Money to purchase an additional Number of books as aforesaid - Voted that every person of the age of twenty-one years of age being a legal Inhabitant of this town, a Man and His Wife to be Recond [reckoned] but one, shall have a single share in the said donation and Such other donations which have been made and also in all the Books that may hereafter be purchased in addition provided, and it is to be understood that no person is to have a share in the additional Numbers of Books Purchased as aforesaid except by Heirship or purchase but such persons as shall subscribe to an Obligation of the following form and make payment Viz., We, whose names are underwritten do severally promise to pay to [the librarian] the sum of six shillings in three months from this date of subscribing, which Money shall be applied to the sole purpose of purchasing Books in addition to Doctor Franklin's Donation for the use of the subscribers their heirs and assigns and it is further voted that the Library shall be named Franklin Library and the major part of the subscribers with the Librarian at any meeting appointed for that purpose shall have full power to Second floor reading room make rules and regulations with penalties annexed for the preservation of the Library and to render it usefull, and every subscriber that shall pay double the sum that intitles to one share shall have two shares, so in proportion for three shares or more, excepting the Donation made to the town by Dr. Franklin, every subscriber shall have one share in said donation and no more and every person that does not subscribe, being 21 yrs of age and a Legal Inhabitant of this town shall not be Debarred from making use of his single share in said Donations they severally conforming to the Rules and Regulations of this Library, and the subscribers with the Librarian, shall at all times hereafter have full Power at their Discretion to take in Subscriptions from any Persons Either Male or Female being of the age of Discretion, belonging to this town shall have Equal Privileges in the Library with other Subscribers in proportion to the Money they shall pay and these votes shall begin to operate and be in force so soon as ten Persons shall have subscribed to an Obligation in form as aforesaid."
Today the massive library building, with its 1900-style murals and marble stairs and pillars, carries on its twenty-first century mission. In the reference area, with its twenty-foot tall ceiling, a table lined with computers and printers has every seat occupied. A children's story hour occupies a basement meeting room, while the children's mothers browse the videotapes and new fiction.
Franklin is a small town-- 22,100 -- but it is an attractive and thriving place. The Friends of the Library sponsor a project we think is unusual but laudable: Franklin Library card holders can borrow passes to several Boston-area museums, gardens and the zoo. It's as though the fire lit by Dr. Franklin has continued through the years, as the library supports its residents in their "attaining to greater degrees of Useful Knowledge."