Benjamin Franklin’s literary legacy lives on in country’s longest-running lending library

As millions of students return to school across the country, we take a look at how a gift from a founding father helped spark a movement to make public education a reality. Pamela Watts of Rhode Island PBS Weekly reports for our arts and culture series, “CANVAS.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As millions of students are returning to school across the country, we take a look at how a gift from a founding father helped spark a movement to make public education a reality.

    Pamela Watts of Rhode Island PBS Weekly reports for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

    Vicki Earls, Head of Reference, Franklin Public Library: People always want to see the books. And they want to touch them and they want to know if I have ever touched them. It's almost like a sacred artifact sort of in town.

  • Pamela Watts:

    Reference librarian Vicki Earls says this historic collection of books is so precious, it is kept under lock and key in a glass display case.

    This is it. This is our baby.

    The town of Franklin, Massachusetts, treasures these books from the 1700s because they are the genesis of the first and oldest public free lending library in continuous operation in America. A revolutionary idea at the time, the volumes were a gift from famous patriot Benjamin Franklin.

  • Vicki Earls:

    So, he was a writer, a printer, a publisher, a scientist, an inventor, diplomat, a statesman. And he knew a lot about a lot of things.

  • Pamela Watts:

    So, today, we would call him a major influencer.

  • Vicki Earls:

    Yes, absolutely, yes.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Vicki Earls:

    He was a rock star.

  • Pamela Watts:

    He was so popular, in fact, there are 31 towns in the United States today named after Benjamin Franklin.

    But Franklin, Massachusetts, was the first.

  • Vicki Earls:

    And this happened in 1778. When the town was founded, a document was presented to the Mass state legislature for naming the town. And somebody along the way had crossed out the original intended name, which was Exeter, and wrote in Franklin.

  • Pamela Watts:

    Franklin's community leaders may have had an ulterior motive for bestowing the honor, according to longtime historian James Johnston.

  • James Johnston, Historian:

    Well, let me tell you about that.

    The local preacher of the Congregational Church decided that, if they gave the honor to Dr. Franklin, that he would give them a bell for their new meeting house, maybe what of Paul Revere's specials. That would be nice, a nice bronze bell.

  • Pamela Watts:

    The bell request for the church steeple was engineered by powerful minister the Reverend Nathanael Emmons. Benjamin Franklin replied by sending the now historic collection of books instead.

    They were loaned out from the Congregational Church and various other buildings around town, until the Franklin Library was built in 1904.

    So why did Benjamin Franklin send books, instead of a bell? He explained in a letter to the town, and one line is inscribed on his statue outside the library. He reasoned sense being preferable to sound.

  • James Johnston:

    Well, what he meant was, would they rather know something of value, or do they just want to listen to the ding-dong and the steeple? I guess that's what he had in mind.

  • Vicki Earls:

    One of the biggest part of the collection is the works of John Locke.

    And this is the time, the time period in history of the Enlightenment, and John Locke, his theories, his political theories were a big part of that, the person that sort of came up with the theories of all people having the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That's one of his concepts.

    And a lot of what he wrote ended up in the Constitution, almost verbatim.

  • Pamela Watts:

    There is another chapter to this story. Turn the page forward a few years, and a Franklin farm boy borrows these books.

  • Vicki Earls:

    He was born and raised here. He was mostly self-educated and mostly self-educated through the Benjamin Franklin collection.

    That student was Horace Mann, considered the father of public education in America.

  • Vicki Earls:

    He believed that all children have the right to education, and that education should be tax-supported.

  • James Johnston:

    Not only public education for white people, but he thought that Native Americans, people of color, women should have the equal opportunity to secure a good education. And when he became the president of Antioch College, he opened the doors to women, to Native Americans, to people of color, all on an equal basis.

  • Pamela Watts:

    Unfortunately, Benjamin Franklin never got to visit his town in Massachusetts. He died in 1790, shortly after donating the book collection.

    What do you think Ben Franklin would have thought of his namesake town?

  • James Johnston:

    I think he would be happy. Established a very nice home for his books. And I think that he would have been happy to know that his books started something very, very positive.

    I think he was hoping that somebody in this town would prefer sense to sound.

  • Pamela Watts:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Pamela Watts in Franklin, Massachusetts.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's a nice note.

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