Nothing marvelous or strange to-day. Visited the Apprentices’ Library this evening, with the Librarian Miss F. C—t, and assisted in registering and numbering some books. This is a very useful institution, and has a large number of readers.
The Apprentices’ Library Company of Philadelphia, situated at the southwest corner of 5th and Arch Streets, was founded in 1820 by several generous and civic-minded persons who were interested in providing books to boys at no charge. It was America’s first free circulating library. The benefactors, mostly members of the Society of Friends, were intent on promoting “orderly and virtuous habits, diffuse knowledge and the desire for knowledge . . . the benefits of the system of general education which is now adopted, and advance the prosperity and happiness of the community.” The idea was to supplement the education of apprentices and other young men for their benefit but also for the benefit of the community in general. The endeavor was such a great success that the library was opened to girls in 1841, although, girls and boys did not use the library on the same days. In 1849, the girls could use the library one afternoon a week, which was expanded to two afternoons the next year.
According to the Annual Report of the Managers of the Apprentices’ Library Company of Philadelphia, Frances Lea Clement was the Librarian of the Girls Library as early as 1843. Ms. Clement was named as the Girls Librarian for the next two years but after that the position was referenced by title only. In the 1850 Annual Report, Frances Clement is listed as a member (membership was $2 per annum).
The library was well used by both genders. In 1849, there were 8,950 books in the boys department and 2,780 books in the girls. Nine hundred fifty boys borrowed 21, 279 books, while 554 girls took out 13,129 volumes. The Library used membership fees to buy new books but many books were donated as well. Regardless, all books had to be approved by the Book Committee and the Board of Managers. Books were meant to instruct not to provide “idle amusement.” A dim view was taken of “exciting fiction” and “sensational literature.” The Apprentices’ Library closed its doors in December 1947 and transferred its library to the School District of Philadelphia.
Interestingly, the name Nathan Beekley does not appear on the Annual Report’s list of members through at least 1864.
Annual Report of the Managers of the Apprentices’ Library Company of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Kite & Walton, 1843, 1844, 1845, 1850.
Scharf, J. Thomas and Thompson Westcott. History of Philadelphia, 1609–1884. Philadelphia: L. H. Everts, 1884.
“What was the first free circulating library in America?” Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Last modified April 8, 2011. http://www.hsp.org/node/3099.