Take a Tour Through Philadelphia’s Libraries, Archives, and Special Collections

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Sarah S. Davis

Staff Writer

Sarah S. Davis holds a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania, a Master's of Library Science from Clarion University, and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Sarah has also written for Electric Literature, Kirkus Reviews, Audible, Psych Central, and more. Sarah is the founder of Broke By Books blog and runs a tarot reading business, Divination Vibration. Twitter: @missbookgoddess Instagram: @Sarahbookgoddess

Forge Books

A Thousand Steps is a beguiling thriller and a vivid portrait of a turbulent time by New York Times bestselling author T. Jefferson Parker. Laguna Beach, 1968. Matt Anthony is sixteen and his sister Jazz has just gone missing. The cops figure she’s just another runaway hippie chick, but Matt doesn’t believe it. Not after another missing girl turns up dead. In a town where the cops don’t trust the hippies and the hippies don’t trust the cops, uncovering what’s really happened to Jazz is going to force him to grow up fast. If it’s not already too late.

In this tour through Philadelphia’s notable libraries and special collections, we’ll discover some of the most interesting, eclectic, and must-visit destinations that any literature lover will enjoy. While pioneer library aficionado and Philadelphia intellectual Ben Franklin lived in a pre-internet era, today many of these libraries, archives, and special collections have a wealth of digitized exhibits and special collections. Even though the pandemic has closed many such spaces, it’s easier than ever than to learn and explore collections from the comfort of your living room.

American Philosophical Society

The headquarters of the American Philosophical Society, known as Philosophical Hall in Philadelphia PA
The headquarters of the American Philosophical Society, known as Philosophical Hall (image credit: Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Established by Benjamin Franklin in 1743, the American Philosophical Society brands itself as the “oldest learned society in the United States.” The library of the American Philosophical Society holds special collections in early American history; Indigenous cultures, anthropology, and linguistics; and the history of science. Housed within the library, the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research and the David center for the American Revolution both illuminate the American Philosophical Society’s unique holdings.

Archives, Library, and Special Collections of the Barnes Museum

The Barnes Museum is one of the most famous museums in Philadelphia and, really, the wider world. The Museum also supports archives, the Honickman Library, and a medley of special collections for scholars and the public alike. You’ll find papers and records related to the establishment of the Museum and the history of 19th and 20th century art movements, psychology, philosophy, and art conservation.

The Center for Art in Wood

Philadelphia is home to many unique libraries and special collections, but the Center for Art in Wood might take the cake for being the most original. The Fleur & Charles Bresler Research Library marks over 800 books, journals, and manuscripts that cover topics like woodworking, wood turning, and wood art at the center of contemporary artistic movements. The Earl Powell Artist Research Files includes key images and files on global artists.

The German Society of Pennsylvania

The German Society of Pennsylvania
The German American Society of Pennsylvania (photo credit: evrik, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Founded in 1764, the German Society of Pennsylvania is the oldest German American organization in the United States. Among the many exciting findings the Society offers is the Joseph P. Horner Memorial Library, which is located in a restored 1888 reading room. Over 50,000 volumes, the majority of which are written in German, find their home in the Society’s Library. Researchers and history lovers will want to check out the German American Collection, which was established in 1867 and encompasses thousands of documents pertaining to German life in the U.S.

The Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

College of Physicians of Philadelphia
College of Physicians of Philadelphia (photo credit: Smallbones, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Founded in 1788, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s Historical Medical Library is not connected to a medical school but rather a scholarly organization about the history, study, and treatment of medicine. The Historical Medical Library is one of the foremost libraries that focus on medicine in the world, with hundreds of books printed pre-1501 and over 12,000 rare books, like William Harvey’s De motu cordis [On the Motion of the Heart], a groundbreaking 1628 study that pioneered the belief that blood circulates. The Library also contains archives from the study of medicine, including the scholarly side of medicine as well as medical school and training. Additionally, the Library functions as an extension of the Mütter Museum, famous for its medical curiosities.

The Library Company of Philadelphia

West Side of the Library Company of Philadelphia building
The Library Company of Philadelphia (image credit: Ben Franske, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1731, Ben Franklin established the Library Company of Philadelphia, which notes its history as “America’s first successful lending library and oldest cultural institution.” Today, hundreds of years later, the Library still endures as a crucial collection of 17th through 19th century American history and culture. The Library counts rare books, photographs, and works of art, among other items, as part of its holdings. The African Americana Collection, the Comic Valentine Collection, and the Fashioning Philadelphia: The Style of the City, 1720–1940, are all part of the Library’s must-see special collections, many of which you can visit on the Library’s website.

The Rare Book Department at the Free Library of Philadelphia

Parkway Central Library location of the Free Philadelphia Library
The Free Library of Philadelphia’s Parkway Central Library (image credit: Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Located in the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Parkway Central Library, the Rare Book Department‘s items go all the way back to 3000 BCE. Sizable collections of documents related to Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, and Beatrix Potter are just some of the treasures you’ll find here. The Department also contains extensive illuminated medieval manuscripts, children’s books from early American history, and Pennsylvania German fraktur folk art. Curated exhibits on the New Deal and Manuscripts of the Muslim World are just two of the many exciting exhibits the Library shares with the public both online and in person.

The Rosenbach Museum

The Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia PA
The Rosenbach Museum (image credit: Davidt8, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Rosenbach Museum was founded with rare books and manuscripts from brothers Philip Rosenbach and Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach. Today the Rosenbach contains a multitude of prized editions of seminal works of literature and literary artifacts, like a first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, Bram Stoker’s notes for Dracula, and the papers of author-illustrator Maurice Sendak. The Rosenbach’s special collections include American literature, the Marianne Moore Collection, and the Fine Arts, among others.

South Asia Collection at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries

Van Pelt Library
Van Pelt Library, which houses the University of Pennsylvania’s South Asian Collection (image credit: Daderot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As far back as the early 1800s, the University of Pennsylvania has collected a bevy of rare books, manuscripts, images, and more items related to South Asian history, culture, social sciences, and humanities. Some of the unique materials curated in the South Asian Collection include cookbooks, comics, and postcards, to name a few. Be sure to check out the Hindi & Bollywood Film Collection and the World, Folk and Ethnic Music Collection.

Book Riot’s coverage of literary Philadelphia continues with these articles: