4 Libraries that Changed the World

“Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for.”–Socrates

Christopher Columbus

History is clear that Columbus had very little, if any, formal schooling; however, he was an avid reader. Columbus recognized the power of books and amassed a large personal library. Columbus made provisions in his will for his library to be maintained and preserved to bless future generations.

After Columbus’s death, the responsibility for the care of his library was given to his son, Fernando. Fernando shared his father’s love of books and used a sizable portion of his income to buy books to add to his father’s library. At the time of Fernando’s death in 1539, the library numbered over 15,000 volumes.

After Fernando’s death, the library passed into the care of the Cathedral in Seville, Spain. The library has been an inspiration to students and scholars for centuries. You can still visit the Cathedral in Seville today and see the handwritten notes of Christopher Columbus inside these books that provided him with the knowledge and inspiration for his great enterprise that changed the world.[i]

Benjamin Franklin

“An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”[ii] –Benjamin Franklin

 Benjamin Franklin was a prolific reader and writer. In his autobiography he wrote, “From my infancy I was passionately fond of reading, and all the money that came into my hands was laid out in the purchasing of books.”[iii]

In 1731 Franklin created America’s first circulating library. Franklin wrote of his creation, “These libraries have improved the general conversation of the 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.”[iv] The Library Company of Philadelphia, which had 375 titles in 1741, has now grown to over 500,000 books with thousands visiting the library each year.

By the end of his life, Franklin had amassed an impressive personal library of more than four thousand books.[v] A visitor to Franklin’s home in 1787 said he owned, “the largest and by far the best private library in America.”

Franklin’s libraries played a significant role in his contributions as an author, businessman, inventor, philanthropist, and civil servant.

George Washington

“A knowledge of books is the basis upon which other knowledge is to be built.”[vi] –George Washington

 George Washington was teachable and spent time each day reading. Washington’s step-granddaughter, Nelly Custis, wrote to one of Washington’s early biographers saying, “It was his custom to retire to his library at nine or ten o’clock, where he remained an hour before he went to his chamber. He always arose before the sun, and remained in his library until called to breakfast.”

The inventory of Washington’s books made at the time of his death shows that his library numbered about nine hundred volumes.[vii] Washington’s study of military books was foundational to victory in the revolution war.[viii] His study of leadership was vital to the successful founding of the United States of America.

The Wright Brothers

“The greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity.” –Orville Wright

 Bishop Wright, Orville and Wilber’s father, maintained a large library in their home. When Orville and Wilber became interested in flight, they read all of the books in their home library on flight in nature. They then read a handful of books on flight at the local public library. When they had exhausted the local resources, Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian Institution asking for more information on flight.[ix]

On December 17, 1903, Orville, age 32, and Wilber, age 36, achieved their dream of a controlled, powered flight. The flight covered a distance of 120 feet in 12 seconds—about half the length of a 747 jumbo jet. The creation of the world’s first successful airplane began with reading books from a family library.

Final Question

What one book would you recommend people have in their library?


[i] Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea (New York: MJF Books, 1942), 49-50.

[ii] Complied by Rev. Frederick S. Sill, A Year Book of Colonial Times (New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1906), 15.

[iii] Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1921), 11.

[iv] Edited by E. Boyd Smith, Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1916), 136.

[v] Andrew M. Allison, The Real Benjamin Franklin (Washington, D.C., National Center for Constitutional Studies, 1987), 249.

[vi] George Washington, The Life of General Washington: First President of the United States, Volume 1 (London: Office of the National Illustrated Library, 1852), 101.

[vii] Appleton P.C. Griffin and William Coolidge Lane, A Catalogue of the Washington Collection in the Boston Athenæum (Boston: The Boston Athenæum, 1897), vii.

[viii] Jay A. Parry and Andrew M. Allison, The Real George Washington (National Center for Constitutional Studies, 1991), 414-415.

[ix] “The Unlikely Inventors,” Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Retrieved June 18, 2019 from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/wright/inventors.html.