The logic that underpinned Benjamin Franklin’s project to establish a subscription library in colonial Philadelphia was simple. “By thus clubbing our Books to a common Library,” writes Franklin in the Autobiography, all subscribers would enjoy the benefits of a larger selection of reading material than they could afford to assemble on their own. The ways in which the Library Company of Philadelphia provided “book capital” to members, fostered sociability, and served as a mechanism for self-improvement have been much discussed by scholars. What has received rather less attention is the museum component of the Library Company.
This paper explores the non-book collection of Franklin’s library and establishes, for the first time, the precise dynamics that governed this museum. What has hitherto been considered a half-hearted attempt by the Library Company to emulate continental cabinets of curiosities emerges as a much more innovative and even subversive approach to the institution of the museum.
Maria Zytaruk is Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Calgary. She specializes in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature and culture. Her work is highly interdisciplinary, as the topic of this paper shows. Publications include an essay on the botanical artist Mary Delany and natural history, and she has a forthcoming article in The Journal of British Studies on elegy and the Foundling Hospital tokens. In April 2015, she will be the Anthony and Beatrice Garvan Fellow in American Material Culture at the Library Company of Philadelphia.