In 1731, Ben Franklin and a group of fifty of his fellow Junto members agreed to pay a yearly subscription fee to form the Library we all know and love. These were our first shareholders. Originally, only shareholders in the Library could take books out of collections, and their yearly subscriptions helped to buy the many texts that we still own today. In the present, shareholding is still an honored tradition. However, we do not issue new share numbers anymore; instead, our members own shares going back as far as our 1731 origins, with impressive provenance attached to the names that came before.
In an effort to make information about our shareholders available to all, we are in the process of creating an indexed, searchable database of all 9,717 shareholders to date! During this project, we have had to overcome some major hurdles. First, we had to combine information collected over many years in all different formats into one standardized document. Including both paper and digital files, we found many biographies of past shareholders already written. We also had to check, and often correct, every name and date of each shareholder in our register book with what we had in our spreadsheet. This spreadsheet was made by digitizing our register book, and so some transcription issues were inevitable. We have also had to do a lot of “de-duping;” sometime in the 1930’s, the Library Company reissued previous shares under new numbers, and then in the 1980’s put the original shares back into circulation. This meant that two people could theoretically hold the same share! In order to get rid of duplicates, we had to trace back each number to its original entry and make notes of what shares belonged where.
Thankfully, we have made significant progress. To date, we have 1,578 shareholders that have some biographical history attached to them. (16% of our total shareholders!) We have also added searchable subject terms to all of our shareholders to help us find shares for prospective shareholders. For example, we now know that at least 22 of our shareholders were abolitionists, 87 served in the armed forces, 19 were Jewish, and 2,423 were women (almost a quarter of our total). This sort of information helps us link new shareholders with our historic shareholders in meaningful ways; a doctor can own the share of other doctors, a Penn graduate can own the share of another Penn graduate, and so forth. As this project progresses, we will be making this information accessible, and searchable, to everyone online. We also hope to continue adding biographical information to our shareholders. When buying a share today, our members can see exactly who owned this share in the past, and learn a little about those who came before them as well. We are very excited to be bringing this information to the public. Stay tuned in future E-News for samples from our database!