Today I grabbed our little local newspaper and while the london broil was defrosting in the microwave, I decided to take 10 minutes and browse through it.
I found this great article called "Book Worm" by Dr. Harry Silcox. He's a local historian for my area of Philadelphia and writes a few articles for the newpaper about historical places in my area of Philadelphia. I love his article. And I knew I was going to love this week's story just based on the title.
Turns out it's a great historical story about our library system and how it was founded by Ben Franklin and a few other men. One thing that was neat was the fact that the men who were a big part in our libraries here have streets named after them right in our area. One of the names is the street that's right at my corner. I never thought about how some of the streets were named but when I started reading the names, it clicked and I just thought that was cool!
Here's the article! Hope it doesn't bore you! One thing I thought was really cool was how people carried 4,000 books 4 blocks to the new library! And that's the library I go to today. I grew up in Tacony and I go to the Holmsburg branch since it's about 5 blocks from my house!
I just loved this article! I could just picture the people of the times and how it must have been to be there for the beginning of libraries! How cool was that! I hope you enjoy it too!
Living in the Past
By Dr. Harry C. Silcox
For the Times
he history of libraries in the United States tells much about the intellectual development of the nation. When settlers arrived in America in the 17th century, they carried few books besides the Bible. The primitiveness of the new frontier forced them to bring only essential items like household utilities, tools for cutting trees, and seeds for growing food.
Recognizing a need for discussions and books, no less a man than Benjamin Franklin organized a group of men into a "junto," or a select group. They met weekly during the 1730s to discuss the events of the day in Philadelphia.
It was not long before they became frustrated by the few books available. To solve the problem, Franklin proposed the first library in the colonies. His concept was simple: Each member would pay a monthly fee for books to be purchased in Europe and brought to Philadelphia to become part of a "Library Company." Any book could then be borrowed for a week at a time by any contributing member.
This lending library, available only to a wealthy few, set a pattern for early libraries in this country.
The first local community to imitate Franklin's library company was in Northeast Philadelphia. In 1794, a meeting was held at the Byberry School House for citizens who'd previously met to organize the school. They resolved to use their influence "to promote a library in Byberry." It was decided to immediately open such a library in the home of Ezra Townsend of Bensalem.
By December of that year, a constitution was adopted and signed by 29 residents of the area. Among them were names still familiar to us today as street names in Byberry: Ezra Townsend, John Comly and Paul Knight. In 1798, the library was moved from Townsend's residence to the schoolhouse. In 1799, the rules were revised to allow the community greater access to the books.
This system lasted until 1916, when books were transferred to Joshua Gilbert's store during rebuilding of the schoolhouse. The work was completed in 1918, and the books have remained there ever since.
Although the library contained only 3,000 volumes, the collection was carefully chosen to encompass history, poetry, science, literature and art. Works by Prescott, Bancroft, Bryce, Lord Bacon, Kingsley, Emerson and Carlyle were all to be found in the library, quite a feat for this small, isolated farm community removed from city life.
The library was so successful that local leader Nathan Middleton and his friends set up a fund, the interest from which provided money to buy books each year, thus freeing the original stockholders from any annual payment.
Closely tied to the library was the Byberry Philosophical Society, which met and housed its collection in the same room. The society was formed in 1829 for "the acquisition and promotion of scientific knowledge," and its minutes show that it was at one time actively engaged in scientific investigations and acquiring Native American artifacts.
Many of the birds and animals still in the collection were mounted by Charles Comly and Dr. Isaac Comly, both skilled taxidermists of that time. Isaac Comly later wrote a history of Byberry that formed the basis of Joseph C. Martindale's book on the area, A History of Byberry and Moreland.
The large collection of waterfowl is still in the library and was a gift of Nathan Middleton. An additional case of animals and birds was the gift of Isaac Comly's wife Elizabeth. Near the library was Thomas Shallcross' home, "The Pines." His love of learning and his position as president of the Twenty-Third Ward School and membership on the Philadelphia School Board made him a primary supporter of educational opportunities in Byberry. A public school bearing his name remains in the community to this very day.
A second library was formed in Northeast Philadelphia in 1823 when a group of civic-minded men met in Holmesburg. Benjamin F. Crispin, Jonathon Rowland and Dr. W. Scott Hendrie formed a lending library to be housed in Hendrie's house. Hendrie lived next to a Methodist Episcopal church near the center of town, and his informal library was well-known to the better-educated families.
Hendrie was an Army surgeon and a colonel in a regiment of local Pennsylvania volunteers. He had a large practice and was extremely popular in Holmesburg. Through his efforts, a large number of books were collected - a collection that officially became the Holmesburg Library in 1867.
Because of his active interest in village improvements, Hendrie became the first president of the library. With full support from its owner, Benjamin Crispin, the books were moved that same year to the newly opened "Athenaeum" building on Frankford Avenue.
An early report by Hendrie showed that the library contained 2,000 books on shelves; there were 6,000 book borrowings over the course of a year. When Hendrie died in the late 1860s, Crispin became library president; the librarian was J. Edger Morrison, who lived nearby.
In 1880, the Holmesburg Library was formally recognized by the Trustees of the Lower Dublin Academy, which promised continual financial support. The trustee minutes indicate that $300 was contributed yearly to buy new books.
The Athenaeum building remained the home of the Holmesburg Library until 1906, when a grant from philanthropist and industrialist Andrew Carnegie built the library that has stood at Hartel Street and Frankford Avenue. The Lower Dublin trustees purchased the ground to fulfill Carnegie's requirement that land be provided to obtain his construction grant.
On the day the books were moved, more than 100 Holmesburg residents arrived at the Athenaeum to carry 4,000 books four blocks to the new library on Hartel Street. This festive and happy day of work assured that books would continue to be available to the community.
Frankford was the largest community in Northeast Philadelphia at the time and also developed a library. The earliest record of a Frankford library appeared in an 1831 article about a group of citizens who spoke of sharing their book collections.
When Joseph Wright built the Wright's Institute in 1854, he provided space for a library room "with heat and light to be used perpetually as a reading room and library." Located at Griscom and Unity streets, the library remained in the Frankford community until the Wright Institute closed in the 20th century and a public library was built.
The only other early library in Northeast Philadelphia was established in Tacony. The first thoughts of a public library for the neighborhood surfaced in 1876, when a public meeting led to formation of the Keystone Scientific and Literary Association on Oct. 24. Meetings were held weekly and featured debates, recitations and readings.
The group met in the original schoolhouse at State Road and Longshore Avenue. Nothing was done to formally establish a library until January 1877, when a committee was appointed to prepare a circular to solicit money and books, as well as to procure a room with lighting fixtures for night reading.
On Feb. 6, 1877, the first book was presented to the group - along with $40.50 that was used to purchase 78 books. The library officially opened in the school on March 6, 1877. This room served as Tacony's library until Jan. 1, 1880, when the library was moved to the Community Hall and New Era newspaper building on State Road.
The Tacony Literary and Library Association then applied for and received a charter from the U. S. Congress. On April 30, 1884, the Keystone Scientific and Literary Association was dissolved and its books were transferred to the newly chartered Tacony Library. The inventory boasted 1,284 books.
When the Henry Disston Saw Works contributed money and promised continued support, the library was renamed the Disston Library and Free Reading Room. Disston rented the third-floor rear room in the Tacony Music Hall for the library. With its high ceilings, stately appearance and easy access, the space was ideal. In 1893, the number of books in the library increased to more than 3,000, leading to the acquisition of space in the bank building at Longshore Avenue and Tulip Street.
In 1906, a Carnegie grant was obtained to build a library on land donated by the Mary Disston Estate. The site at Knorr Street and Torresdale Avenue yet again encouraged a community to turn out and walk the books one pile at a time to the new library.
Northeast Philadelphia's early efforts to develop libraries came from within each community. Long before any City of Philadelphia initiatives, the Quakers in Byberry, the wealthy, civic-minded citizens of Holmesburg and the industrialists of Tacony and Frankford established the blueprints for libraries in their communities, with the support to ensure their growth.
While the Carnegie grants at the turn of the century were instrumental in the establishment of libraries in Holmesburg and Tacony, clearly Northeast communities were already committed to the idea of having libraries, a home for books available to all.