When it comes to literary mysteries, the death of Benjamin Franklin’s library is not exactly a whodunit.
Scholars already know the collection was killed by his grandson, William Temple Franklin, who inherited most of the books and sold them for cash.
The real crime, historians say, is that there’s no surviving inventory of the 4,276 volumes — a list that could provide valuable insight into Franklin’s life.
That will change in coming months when the Library Co. of Philadelphia publishes a catalog of titles comprising nearly half of Franklin’s lost collection. The volumes range from books on science and medicine to manuals on the mechanics of printing and the making of apple cider, not to mention classics such as “Don Quixote” and “The Odyssey.”
It will be the most complete list ever published, helping to solve a puzzle that dates back more than 200 years.
“Next to his own writings, this is the most important source of information about him,” says librarian James Green. “There are discoveries to be made here.”
Franklin’s collection was one of the largest private libraries in America at the time and took up the entire second floor of an addition he built on his Philadelphia home, Mr. Green says. When Franklin died in 1790, the books were scattered among a number of institutions and relatives. Most were bequeathed to Temple Franklin.
The grandson, though, had no interest in the library and “looked on it as an asset to exploit,” Mr. Green says. By 1794, Temple Franklin had sold his volumes to a man who ended up going bankrupt four years later.
The books then ended up in the hands of bookseller Nicholas Dufief, who sold them off between 1801 and 1803 to buyers including then-President Thomas Jefferson. A deal fell through for the Library of Congress to acquire the remainder of the collection. Dufief had published catalogs of the titles, but those lists were lost as well.
Yet one important part of Franklin’s collection did survive: The “shelf mark.”
The penciled notation inside his books consisted of the letter C followed by numbers and then N followed by more numbers. It was noticed first around 1935 by members of the American Philosophical Society, a Philadelphia-based group founded by Franklin that had bought some of his volumes from Dufief.
But was the shelf mark made by Dufief or Franklin?
Enter Edwin Wolf, a librarian at the Library Co. The organization, started by Franklin and other bibliophiles in 1731, is an independent research institution documenting American history through the 19th century.
Years of research culminated in 1956 when Mr. Wolf discovered the shelf mark in volumes Franklin bequeathed directly to the library and the Philosophical Society — books that had not been handled by Dufief. The marks weren’t always easy to find; some were hidden under bookplates placed by subsequent owners, and some had been papered over when the volumes had been rebound.View Entire Story
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