- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006


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.

Further confirmation came in 1962 from a descendant of Benjamin Franklin Bache — another grandson of Franklin’s who had inherited a smaller part of the library.

Among Bache’s papers was an inventory of titles with the header “List of books for B.F. Bache” in Temple Franklin’s handwriting. It was the list of volumes bequeathed to Bache by the Founding Father.

The volumes were listed by “Case” and “Number,” leading Mr. Wolf to conclude that the shelf mark referred to the location of the books on Franklin’s shelves at home. The C stood for case and indicated on which shelf the book belonged, while the N stood for number, referring to the position of the book on the shelf.

By the time he died in 1991, Mr. Wolf had deduced about 3,000 titles contained in about 1,000 volumes, or about a quarter of Franklin’s library. He also had identified the names of about 700 books Franklin had mentioned owning in his letters, though actual copies have not been located yet.

Now that information, along with some additional research, is being codified by researcher Kevin Hayes in a 900-page bibliography of 3,741 titles comprising about 2,000 volumes. Included in the catalog are works such as a 1764 edition of “Two Treatises of Government,” by John Locke; a 1721 edition of “Opticks: Or, a Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections and Colours of Light,” by Isaac Newton; and a 1556 edition in Latin of the Magna Carta, one of the world’s most important political documents.

“Reconstructing his library would be fantastic,” says Gordon Woods, a history professor at Brown University and author of “The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin.” “That would be a real contribution to scholarship.”

Mr. Hayes, who teaches English at the University of Central Oklahoma, came into the picture about five years ago when Library Co. Director John Van Horne asked him if he wanted to pick up where Mr. Wolf had left off. Mr. Hayes had done his dissertation on another private Colonial-era library and says he “jumped at the chance” to work on Franklin’s collection.

Mr. Van Horne sent Mr. Wolf’s voluminous notes to Oklahoma, where Mr. Hayes has been poring over them. He also has gone through Franklin’s papers at museums and libraries in Delaware, Philadelphia and Washington to find references to books that Mr. Wolf might have missed.

Mr. Hayes estimates that about half of the 2,000 volumes listed in the catalog still survive. The Library Co. and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania together own the largest chunk of Franklin’s books: 354 volumes representing more than 2,150 titles. Others can be found at various places including Princeton University and the Library of Congress.

But simply knowing the names of the books opens a new window for historians: It allows them to see what titles may have influenced the life of one of America’s foremost historical figures.

It is an important mystery to solve, Mr. Green says, “not to close the book on Franklin, but to open it up.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide