Besides the lost library of Alexandria, Benjamin Franklin’s personal library was one of the most famous in history. Accounts of his library depict his study as a large chamber with book shelves covering the walls and alcoves stretching the length of the room, all filled entirely with books. Many believed it was the best, private library in the country at the time. After Franklin’s death in 1790 his collection contained 351 folio volumes, 150 topographical pamphlets, 767 quartos, 1,548 octavos, 1,260 duodecimos, and 200 duodecimos stitched. His will, written in 1788, was said to have included a catalog of his books, but said catalog has never been found. In fact, to this day no one has been able to recreate the catalog of his impressive library, though many have tried.
After Franklin’s death his will instructed his collection be split among various individuals and societies, the majority going to his grandson, William Temple Franklin. His actual will listing the various people and places is currently in an archival repository in Philadelphia. Researchers who have spent considerable time looking into recreating this lost treasure have found that William left for England in 1790 taking only half of his grandfathers collection, and never came back dying in 1823. The books left in Philadelphia were left with a friend of Williams, which is where the first half of the mystery begins. William used the books he brought with him to England as a form of repayment for some kind of debt that he had, other theories include he used them for cash to bail a friend out of jail. From this point, the books, whose titles were still more or less unknown, became a puzzle.
Different researchers and avid fans have since then tried to recreate and account for all the books originally in Franklin’s possession. Since Franklin was such a book man and took great pride in his library all of his books were shelved and organized based off of his own system. The system essentially included documenting which bookshelf the book was on, what shelf, and what number book on that shelf. Franklin documented these locations on the inside cover of most of his books in a similar, notable fashion. The books that were given to different societies are still, for the most part, in their possession now. Other books, like the ones bequeathed to specific individuals are still being accounted for. Edwin Wolf, who devoted his life to finding these volumes, had the most accurate catalog to date. In 2006 Kevin Hayes completed his work for a catalog titled The Library of Benjamin Franklin with 3,740 titles.
As you all should know, I am a big fan of mystery and “lost treasure” so the idea of people going around estate sales and looking through all kinds of bookshelves for these lost items is extremely intriguing. However, the reason I am interested enough to devote an entire blog post about it is because there might be one volume here at the University of Arizona *starts internally screaming.*
While these books have all presumably been marked by Franklin himself many of these volumes have been rebound or had their markings erased by unknowing owners (can you imagine?) making finding them a little tricky. The volume that might be here is a needle in a very big haystack. The man, a book expert, who believes he had found it has since then lost his notes and can only remember that it was in the main library and had the word “garden” in the title. According to him he came across this book some time ago meaning it may or may not have since been moved from the main library to special collections, where it should be. So where do I start? I get the Hayes book, which may or may not have this specific titles within in and I start cross-referencing what we have here. Then I take it a step further and start searching for books with “garden” in the title from before 1780, then I go insane and look through a ridiculous amount of books trying to find the small “N” and “C” that he used to organize his collection. Which clearly has been so far unyielding.
Why is this search important? They could be anywhere! Keep an eye out and grab all the books from before 1790 that you can and check the covers, check the pages. Look for the “NC” that signified where they sat on Franklin’s shelves. You could possibly even take it back to his archival material and continue searching for the missing catalog. People believe that these books could offer not only an insight into an historically important figure, but it would also be an amazing accomplishment to find and track these books who have since all acquired their own history.
For more information I would suggest starting with some basic research on what others have found, and get a hold of a copy of the catalog which can be found in most academic libraries! Good luck, and happy hunting!
Wolf, E., & Hayes, K. (2006). The library of Benjamin Franklin (Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society ; v. 257). Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society/Library of Philadelphia.