Following the Early Evolution of the Library Company Month by Month

Dana Dorman, Archivist, Library Company Papers Project

As part of my work on the Library Company Papers Project, I have been enjoying browsing through the minutes from the meetings of the Library Company’s board of directors.

The library’s “Articles of Association” date back to July 1, 1731, but our first volume of minutes begin on November 8, with Secretary Joseph Breintnall recording the summons that Benjamin Franklin sent by messenger to the first directors of the Library Company.

The library’s first book order is captured in the minutes from the March 31, 1732 meeting:

Photograph of detail from March 31, 1732 minutes

Image: Detail from March 31, 1732 minutes. Directors Minutes Volume 1, 1731-1768.

The minutes from other meetings record the names of library shareholders, discussions about library hours and policies, and a whole range of other administrative details both big and small.

Over time, the minutes trace the growth and evolution of the Library Company: changes in share ownership, changes in staffing, details about book orders and donations of curiosities, mergers with other institutions, and so much more.

Sometimes the minutes also capture happenings in the world outside the library.

The minutes for November 12, 1739, for instance, carefully note that the meeting was held at the coffee house of John Roberts’ widow.

Photograph of detail from November 12, 1739 directors minutes

Image: Detail from November 12, 1739 minutes. Directors Minutes Volume 1, 1731-1768.

Since many previous meetings had been held at John’s coffee house, this reference seems to indicate that John himself had passed away before the November 12th meeting. (The Library Company continued to meet at Widow Roberts’ coffee house, located near 2nd and Market Streets, until roughly 1754.)

The August 31, 1774 minutes record the library’s use by members of the first Continental Congress. The minutes include a motion that “the Librarian furnish the Gentlemen who are to meet in Congress in this City with the use of such Books as they may have occasion for during their sitting, taking a Receipt for them.”

Photograph of detail from August 31, 1774 directors minutes

Image: Detail from August 31, 1774 minutes. Directors Minutes Volume 2, 1768-1785.

(The directors offered the same privileges to the members of the second Continental Congress and the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention.)

Of course, the minutes also include occasional suggestions or complaints from the library’s users.

The April 30, 1784 minutes, for example, include a complaint from the esteemed Rev. William White. He complained that he had “incurred a large fine by the inattention and misconduct of the late Librarian,” but the directors instructed the current Librarian to continue to withhold shareholding privileges for Rev. White “till he replaces or pays for volume of pamphlets which he has lost.”

Minutes from a future meeting included the list of pamphlets that had been lost, and the estimated cost to replace them, and Rev. White’s fine was eventually paid.

Seal of the National Endowment for the Humanities

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.