In 1882, the U.S. government purchased a portion of the papers Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) had bequeathed to his grandson William Temple Franklin (1790-1823). The collection represents the material taken to London by William Franklin to prepare his three volume work, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin (London: 1817-1818), and acquired in 1851 by Henry Stevens, an American book dealer in London. At the time of the purchase, the books and pamphlets in the collection were sent to the Library of Congress. Approximately 200 items from the Benjamin Franklin Collection in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division can be traced to the Stevens purchase and are described in Henry Stevens' Benjamin Franklin's Life and Writings: A Biographical Essay on the Stevens' Collection of Books and Manuscripts Relating to Doctor Franklin.
The collection embraces 850 volumes that were written, printed, edited, or published by Franklin. Notable items include numerous early editions and translations of the Autobiography, Baroness Le Despencer's annotated copy of the Abridgement of the Book of Common Prayer (London: 1773), one of the four known surviving copies of A Vindication of the New-North-Church in Boston (Boston: 1720) which was printed during Franklin's apprenticeship at his brother's shop, and the first edition of Franklin's Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity (London: 1725). Also of relevant interest are the few volumes once owned by Franklin that were purchased by Thomas Jefferson and acquired by the Library of Congress as part of the Thomas Jefferson Library.
The unique materials of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, now totaling over 1 million items, include books, broadsides, pamphlets, theater playbills, prints, posters, photographs, and medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. At the center is Thomas Jefferson's book collection, which was sold to Congress in 1815. The Rare Book & Special Collections Reading Room is modeled after Philadelphia's Independence Hall. This room is home to the divisional catalogs, reference collection, and reference staff. Collections are stored in temperature and humidity controlled vaults.