August 6, 2016 by bbutler1969
Philadelphia is the home of hoagies and cheesesteaks, the Saturday Evening Post and Godey’s Lady’s Book, the Phillies and Rocky Balboa…and several unique libraries.
Aspiring Colonial-era tradesmen who were hungry for self-improvement joined discussion groups where they could discuss the latest ideas shared in books. One of those groups was the Junto, formed in 1727 by 21-year-old Benjamin Franklin. Since booksellers in the colonies were few and far between, and Junto members were of such moderate means that they couldn’t afford importing books from abroad on their own, Franklin and 50 of his fellow Junto-ers founded a subscription-based lending library in 1731. The Library Company of Philadelphia would become what Franklin called “the Mother of all the North American Subscription Libraries” — an independent research library that is America’s oldest cultural institution. Today, its holdings include rare books, pamphlets, broadsides, manuscripts, prints, political cartoons, photographs and portraits that document American history and culture from the Colonial period through the end of the 19th century.
The Library Company wasn’t Franklin’s only attempt to foster knowledge among his fellow Philadelphians. In 1743, he founded the American Philosophical Society to promote scholarship in the humanities and sciences. Its library specializes in early American history, Native American ethnography and linguistics, and the history of science, medicine and technology. Its collection includes manuscripts, scientific instruments, patent models, rare books, maps, drawings, paintings, prints, Benjamin Franklin’s personal papers, and Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s expedition journals, which were donated by Thomas Jefferson, who was simultaneously president of the Society and of the United States. Gathering Voices: Thomas Jefferson and Native America, an exhibit on view at the Society through December 30, 2016, features Jefferson’s collection of Native American languages.
The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, another membership library, was founded in 1814 to collect materials connected with the history and antiquities of America. Today, the Athenaeum’s collection focuses on the history of American architecture, building and interior design. It is furnished with American fine and decorative arts from the early- to mid-19th century.
The Rosenbach Museum and Library is the former home of renowned rare-book dealer Abraham Rosenbach (1876-1952) and his antique-dealer brother, Philip (1863-1953). The Rosenbachs picked up their love of rare books and antiques from their uncle, who owned an antiquarian bookstore at 1320 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. When their uncle died, they inherited his stock, selling everything from top-notch British decorative art to kitschy Christmas cards. They furnished their home with a spectacular array of tasteful items that either hadn’t sold in their store, or with which they couldn’t bear to part company.
Abraham’s great bibliographic treasures are the highlight of the upstairs library. As the leading American antiquarian book and manuscripts dealer of the first half of the 20th century, Abraham was a scholarly, savvy businessman who bought and sold Shakespeare first folios, Gutenberg Bibles and Bay Psalm books, those first volumes published in the colonies. He also acquired the original manuscripts of James Joyce’s Ulysses and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; the only surviving copy of Benjamin Franklin’s ﬁrst Poor Richard Almanac; a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress that John Bunyan inscribed to his cellmate; the first American edition of Pride and Prejudice; a lock of Charles Dickens’ hair; rings belonging to Robert Louis Stevenson; Lord Byron’s calling card case and Robert Burns’ powderhorn.
The Free Library of Philadelphia’s main branch, known as the Parkway Central Library, is home to the world’s largest lending library of orchestral music, the second-largest collection of automobile manuals in the United States, and a fine collection of letters, manuscripts, books and memorabilia associated with Charles Dickens. One collector gifted the library with Grip, a talking raven who not only was Dickens’ constant companion until he died from eating a paint chip, but also inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write The Raven. Another collector bequeathed his actual physical library room from his Pennsylvania home, which houses Dickens’ writing desk, marked with a carving reading “CD.”
The library is also home to the Culinary Literacy Center, a commercial-grade kitchen that serves as a classroom for food, science, nutrition and literacy. It is the first of its kind in America. Since 2014, 11,000 Philadelphians of all ages and backgrounds have participated in demonstrations and hands-on cooking classes that teach math through measuring, reading through recipes, chemistry through cooking, and consumer skills through reading a nutrition label.