The Nation's Oldest Public Library Is In Danger Of Closing

This library really is a national treasure. (I know, I used to be a board member.) It's the country's first continuously-operated public lending libra

This library really is a national treasure. (I know, I used to be a board member.) It's the country's first continuously-operated public lending library (as opposed to a paid subscription library), operating since 1743. It just has the misfortune to be in a historic but poor, mostly minority community that has to scrape together every dime. Thanks, Bush-O-Nomics!

The library's first book purchase (shown here) was from Benjamin Franklin's London bookseller. (Franklin helped John Bartram, the nation's first botanist, to set up the library. Bartram worshipped at the Darby Quaker meeting, whose graveyard still surrounds the present library building.)

If you'd like to help, send checks to:

The Darby Free Library

1001 Main Street

P.O. Box 164

Darby, PA 19023

AS THE NUTTER administration prepares to ask a court for approval to shutter 11 Philadelphia libraries as part of a cost-cutting plan, a national treasure just outside the city limits is on the verge of collapse.

Delaware County's Darby Free Library, which was founded in 1743 and is believed to be the oldest continuously operating public library in America, will be forced to close its doors at year's end if somebody doesn't write a fat check, the Daily News has learned.

"We're on the chopping block," said Susan Borders, director of the library at 10th and Main streets, near the Southwest Philly border. "We thought we may have had four years left, but after going over our finances, we only have this year."

Founded by 29 Quaker townsmen, the library received its first shipment of 45 volumes from London in November 1743, with the assistance of botanist John Bartram.

"It's older than our country," said Raymond Trent, a longtime bibliographic assistant at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who has donated books, DVDs and other reference materials to Darby's library.

"I appreciate the phone call, but to receive news like this is devastating," Trent told a reporter yesterday.

He was preparing to donate another shipment of books, including Michelle Obama's biography.

"Since I grew up in Darby, it was my way of giving back to the community," Trent said.

"This comes as really bad news to my ears, because I have poured my heart and soul into trying to make Darby library one of the best libraries around."

Michael Race, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which funds local libraries, said that the Darby Free Library is the state's longest-operating public library. He said that his department is unaware of any library in the United States that predates it.

"It would be a tragedy if they have to close it," said Lindy Wardell, president of the Darby Borough Historical and Preservation Society.

Some books from its original collection - including John Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained and Sir Walter Raleigh's The History of the World - are still displayed in the two-story brick building, built by Charles Bonsall in 1872 at a cost of $8,895.54. Others are at the Library Company of Philadelphia, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731 as a subscription library.

While the historical significance of Darby's library - located in a rough-and-tumble town that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad - cannot be overstated, there is also a practical reason to keep it open, supporters say.

It provides high-speed Internet access to the borough of 10,000 residents, some of whom can't afford a computer, and a safe haven for schoolchildren to do research and homework, said Jan Haigis, who sits on the Darby Library Company board.

"It keeps them off occasionally mean streets," Haigis said.

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