About Yale’s Franklin Collection

This Collection, originally called at Yale the Mason-Franklin Collection, is the most extensive collection of materials by, about, and around Franklin and his times to be found in a single collection anywhere in the world. It was assembled during the first decades of the twentieth century by William Smith Mason of the Yale class of 1888 Shef. Mason housed the collection in his home in Evanston, Illinois, where he employed a personal librarian to assist him in gathering materials and to care for the whole. Yale University acquired the entire collection in 1935. It was hailed as the largest and most valuable gift ever made to the Yale Library up to that date, and acknowledged as one of the finest collections ever assembled around an individual. In anticipation of its arrival, the University Librarian reserved room for it in the planning of Sterling Memorial Library.

As private book collections go, this assemblage was unusual in that Mr. Mason intended it to be not merely a collection of rare books and manuscripts, but in every sense a working library, and he welcomed qualified scholars to use it in his home while it was there. He acquired not only rarities but scholarly and other books in any way related to the central subject: biographies and published correspondence of Franklin’s friends and associates when these existed; histories of the period, both general and local; extended runs of important British and European eighteenth-century newspapers and magazines; extended runs, or complete files, of the journals and published collections of appropriate historical societies; monographs on topics relating to the eighteenth-century American colonies and to events or issues of Franklin’s times; compilations of documentary materials; general reference works such as the Britannica, Larousse, Dictionary of National Biography, andDictionary of American Biography; dictionaries and atlases, etc. The books and pamphlets number approximately 15,000 volumes.

The rare books and pamphlets are outstanding and include many of Franklin’s own imprints, a few books from his personal library, and some unique or almost unique items. Some of these are described in George Simpson Eddy’s “A Ramble through the Mason-Franklin Collection,” Yale University Library Gazette, X, no. 4 (April 1936), 65-90.

In addition Mr. Mason gathered quantities of manuscript materials, including a substantial collection of original letters by or to Franklin and some of his contemporaries, with photocopies or typescript copies of many others housed in other repositories. While in number the Franklin letters in the manuscript collection rank only about fifth or sixth nationally, many of them are particularly choice.

The Collection also includes a great deal of pictorial material: one original contemporary oil portrait of Franklin of major historical importance, a few other oils, and literally hundreds of contemporary and later prints of the many Franklin portraits and of portraits of his associates and contemporaries. Some of these prints are framed and hang on the walls of the rooms of the Franklin Collection in Sterling Library or in the corridor outside these rooms. The rest are filed in cases where they are readily available for consultation and use. Mason’s collection of art objects is also significant, comprising several marble busts (one of which is currently on display in the Starr Reference Room), small sculptures in bronze and porcelain, and medallions in both bronze and terra cotta.

The main body of the Collection is housed in three adjoining rooms on the second floor of Sterling Memorial Library (entrance through room 230). It is open to members of the Yale community and to visiting scholars for research and study purposes Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visiting scholars have come to work here from all over the United States, Europe and Japan. Readers are advised, however, that a portion of the Collection has been relocated to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. This includes all the manuscripts, all pre-1763 imprints (with the exception of periodicals), and individual printed items of exceptional rarity and value.

When the undertaking began in 1954 to edit and publish a comprehensive edition of Franklin’s papers, the editorial staff was given the privilege of setting up editorial offices in these rooms. Here they have assembled photocopies of approximately 30,000 Franklin-related manuscripts from various parts of the United States and 13 foreign countries. Until 1954, public services were only available through the Sterling Reference Department. When the editors of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin moved in, they undertook to provide reader services. They continue to provide these services as a courtesy, assisting visitors to the Collection and answering queries from scholars around the world.