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The idea originated from two men who had connections to America's early history, the Marquis de Chastellux and the Marquis de Barbé-Marbois. Both men had been elected to the American Philosophical Society and had been awarded honorary degrees (LL.D.) by Penn. They made their suggestion known to the minister of foreign affairs, the Comte de Vergennes, who arranged to have the books shipped as a gift in the King's name. This generous donation exemplified France's commitment to both education in the New World and to the ideas of the Enlightenment.
The collection is most notable for its emphasis on eighteenth-century science. It includes a large run of Buffon's Histoire naturelle, as well as works by Lamarck, Dortous de Mairan, and Réaumur. In addition, the gift contains a selection of scientific voyages sponsored by French academies, such as Bougainville's Voyage autour du monde. The gift remains virtually intact to this day, and many titles are still in their original bindings.