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It Happens Here: Franklin The Home Of The First Public Library In America

FRANKLIN (CBS) - The oldest, continuously operating public library in America is in Franklin, a town that has its own theme song!

"The name of the town on the original paperwork is Exeter. Somewhere between leaving Franklin and arriving at the State House of Massachusetts in Boston, they crossed out the name Exeter and wrote in the name Franklin. So that is how we got our name, and we don't know who did it," says Vicki Earls, Head of Reference Services at the Franklin Public Library.

While we don't know who did it, we do know why - to impress Benjamin Franklin, who had just gained support from France for the American Revolution. But the town expected Franklin to reciprocate.

"Someone got the idea, we don't know, who of approaching Franklin and telling him the honor that was bestowed upon him, and would he want to contribute something to this newly founded town," Earls explained. "They requested from Franklin a bell. They were building a new meeting house and a bell was crucially important because that's how you gathered citizens."

Ben Franklin
A portrait of Ben Franklin inside the Franklin Public Library. (WBZ-TV)

But Benjamin Franklin didn't think the people of Franklin needed a bell. He thought the money would be better spent on books.

"His statement was 'sense being preferable to sound.' What he wanted to do was give the town a collection of books rather than a bell. He must have been really honored. It was an excellent gift to have given us. Books and libraries were his religion really. Books were everything," said Earls, who was born and raised in Franklin and has worked at the library for 37 years.

With the help of his good friend Dr. Richard Price, Franklin sent 116 volumes to the town of Franklin. The budget was 25 pounds, about $16,000 in today's money. Although the books did not come from Franklin's personal collection, he made sure they contained writings on government, philosophy, and religion. Franklin's nephew Jonathan Williams helped execute the delivery to the town, although Earls says he did seem annoyed by the whole ordeal.

"He said 'They're poor. They don't need a bell, they'll need to build a steeple. They need a bell like a toad needs a tail.' I think he was put out but the whole request really," Earls told WBZ.

Franklin Public Library
Books from Ben Franklin inside the Franklin Public Library. (WBZ-TV)

When the books finally arrived, they were kept at a local reverend's home, and for a while the reverend would only allow fellow Congregationalists to use them.

"That made people upset," said Earls. "They had been waiting for these books that they thought were for the entire town of Franklin."

After several heated meetings, the town finally came to an agreement; every Franklin resident would have access to the books, also known as The Franklin Collection.

"We became the first public library In America. Circulated free to the public, no fees charged," Earls told WBZ.

The books moved around between schoolhouses and were even kept in a barn, until 1904, when the Ray family donated the Franklin Public Library building. These days, they're kept in a special glass case and have been chemically treated to stop any further deterioration.

Franklin Library
The Franklin Public Library. (WBZ-TV)

"They had this built as the first real home for the Franklin donation because there was a never a library building appropriate for the collection. So now it has its temple. It just made people really aware of libraries, love libraries. I think we will probably always underestimate the impact of that donation. We take it for granted because we have this fabulous library, this fabulous collection, this fabulous history, and that's just who we are," says Earls.


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