Rediscovering the Library

Ben Franklin and a group of friends founded the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731. Amazingly, he was 25 years old. It was America’s first lending library and can lay claim to being the predecessor of what everyone now knows as the free public library. I can’t remember what I did at 25. I sure didn’t create a living system of knowledge that’s just shy of 300 years old. Grant, anything the government comes up with never dies. The United States was still buying helium in mass quantities to keep the Germans from using it in World War II. Yes, there was a fear that hundreds of blimps would cross the ocean blue.

“These libraries have improved the general conversation of Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defense of their privileges.”

Ben Franklin

Reading is the ultimate gift. It’s the ability to learn quickly what someone else spent a lot of time and effort putting together. Work fours a week. Check. Understand an astronauts training regiment. Check. Read books that have stood the test of time (Meditations, Seneca, etc.,). Check. That’s the power of a good book. You can be anyone, learn anything.

In the 1700s, books were expensive. That’s why Franklin built the library. It was a means to share something ultimately expensive to the largest number of people. Franklin wanted to democratize knowledge. Borrow a book. Share a little knowledge. Give it back for someone else to use. What a beautiful and powerful idea.

For the last few years, I thought Franklin’s library (in the traditional sense) died. Sure, it took 300 years but Amazon and the internet killed it. Amazon’s business model is fairly simple. People pay for convenience. And nothing is simpler than downloading a Kindle book. I can own the latest book release upon launch; plus, I don’t have stacks of paper lying around. No trip to the library needed.

But convenience had a compounding effect. There is a cost to most things in life. Given enough time, even $0.99 cent specials begin to add up. At $9.99, reading 4 to 5 books a month adds up. Looking at my charges over the past year, well, taking a short trip to the library isn’t a bad thing. Going back to the electronic card catalog (I do miss the paper version) and stacks of books, it’s amazing what a good library can do:

First, I can read out of print and hard to find books. I ordered Senecca’s On the Shortness of Life from a college near Chicago. Sure, it took a few weeks but it eventually came.

Two, they come with a time limit. You’d think this would be a negative. But a little pressure can be a positive. With a deadline, even one as small as two weeks, it keeps you reading. It’s the little motivations, the small pushes, that can get you moving.

Three, if you ever need to find old newspapers this is the place for you. I fondly remember using microfilm as a kid. Kids take Wikipedia for granted. In the olden days (as my kid likes to say), I had to find microfilm and use a hulking machine to read magazines/newspapers from the 50/60/70s (my version of the olden days). I still think microfilm is cool. I wonder whatever happened to all that stuff.

And finally, depending on your library, I can get a digital copy too. Sure, there are some books I really want to have a physical copy of. I’ll probably end up buying Seneca’s book. But mostly, I don’t want to keep things around. And that’s why I love the Kindle. And certain libraries can do that too, leveraging a little app called OverDrive I’ve checked out Freakonomics, The Martian and more this year. I think I’ve tallied a couple hundred book dollars in savings.

I rediscovered the library this year. It’s a beautiful place.

Save money. Learn a little. Study a language. Train a dog. Plan a vacation. Become a champion.

Thank you, Ben Franklin.

Links and References:

OverDrive, the Electronic Library

The Martian

On the Shortness of Life (Penguin Great Ideas)

Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain

The US Helium Reserve

Leslie Dame CD-456W Solid Oak Library File Media Cabinet, Walnut