Initiated by the efforts of Dr. William Pepper, the Free Library of Philadelphia was chartered in 1891 as "a general library which shall be free to all." The library opened in March 1894.The Free Library is home to 54 locations and 7.2 million circulating items. In addition, the system has free Wi-Fi at each of its locations and nearly 1,000 public access computers, making it one of the largest providers of free internet in Philadelphia.
It has several rare and unique special collections. The Rare Book Department at Parkway Central Library features one of the world’s most renowned Charles Dickens collections—featuring first editions, personal letters, and Dickens’s stuffed pet raven, Grip—as well as the largest Beatrix Potter collection outside of the United Kingdom. The Department also houses robust collections of cuneiform tablets, medieval and Oriental manuscripts, and Pennsylvania German fraktur, as well as the extensive Children’s Literature Research Collection.
In addition to the collections housed in the Rare Book Department, the Free Library also features the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music, which is the largest lending library of orchestral music in the world. The Library’s Automobile Reference Collection is one of the most extensive public resources of its kind, and the Print and Picture Collection houses roughly half-a-million circulating pictures in the largest public picture lending library in the nation, in addition to thousands of fine art prints, drawings, and photographs. The Free Library also has an extensive special collection devoted to maps.