The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, a Yale-sponsored organization dedicated to publishing a comprehensive edition of Franklin’s works, held an open house on Wednesday to celebrate Franklin’s 312th birthday.
Room 230 of Sterling Memorial Library, where the open house was held, houses the Franklin Collection, the largest compilation of books, papers, reference works and artwork related to Franklin, most of which were acquired from a collector in the 1930s. The same room is also home base for the Papers of Benjamin Franklin, the product of a collaboration between Yale and the American Philosophical Society that aims to publish all of the founding father’s works and correspondences. While other editions selectively published Franklin’s best works, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, founded in 1954, strives to create a comprehensive edition.
“History, if it is only written from the point of view of highlights of a given individual’s writings, can never be accurate,” said Ellen Cohn, editor-in-chief of the project. “One of the innovations of this modern concept of comprehensive annotated editions is that you get both sides of the correspondence, so you see what people wrote to him as well as what he wrote.”
The project has published 42 volumes so far, almost all of which are available online, and is expecting to publish approximately five more. About 80 percent of the content in these volumes had never been published before.
“Nobody’s ever going to do this again so we’re so worried about being accurate,” Associate Editor Kate Ohno said.
During the open house, which took place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the project opened its doors to students, faculty and community members. Eugene Lim ’18, one of the attendees, remarked that as a history major, he found the “incredible archives” particularly interesting.
John Chang MED ’99, another attendee and assistant professor at the medical school, said he brought his two daughters, who are learning about the Revolutionary War in school, to the exhibit to learn more about Franklin. Cohn and Ohno were happy to show them Franklin’s letters.
Cohn, who has been studying Franklin for 38 years, said he is drawn not only to Franklin’s brilliance, but also his humility and correspondences with people of all classes.
“His papers are almost a lens into the entire 18th century and all strata of society,” she said.
A full set of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin will be the first books placed in Benjamin Franklin College’s library. Cohn and Head of Benjamin Franklin College Charles Bailyn are exploring a connection between the project and the college, which is in its inaugural year.
Bailyn told the News that his goals for this semester include thinking about public art and books in the library, both prompted by Franklin. He said he hopes the college’s traditions and art will use Franklin as a starting point but will mainly be shaped by student ideas and perspectives.
But not all students interviewed were enthusiastic about celebrating Franklin.
Gwendolyn Wallace ’21, a student in Benjamin Franklin, said that as a black woman she finds it hard to relate to Benjamin Franklin as a person. Wallace said she and a group of other students refer to their residence as Aretha Franklin College.
“It feels like a piece of rebellion in a place that I don’t always feel like represents me,” Wallace said.
Bailyn acknowledged there is a “certain dead white man-ness to Dr. Franklin.” But both he and Cohn noted that Franklin’s views evolved over time. Although Franklin owned slaves when he was younger, one of his last public acts was submitting a petition to Congress to abolish slavery.
“I am much more comfortable with where he ended up than where he was along the way,” Bailyn said.
Cohn, who is a faculty fellow at the college, will be speaking at a Benjamin Franklin College tea on Jan. 18.
Meera Rothman | firstname.lastname@example.org