Penn, a mid-18th-century foundation, began with what Benjamin Franklin called an "English" (or a secular) curriculum. From the start it aimed to educate people who might, like Franklin, minister to society's non-spiritual needs. Quickly adding faculties, notably medicine, Penn was effectively a university by the time of the Revolution.
Its library grew slowly, like those of other American educational institutions. Early gifts from Franklin, geographer Lewis Evans, and the as yet un-shortened French King Louis XVI, anxious to cock a snook at George III, remain in Penn's collections to this day. They are not numerous.
Real growth awaited the later 19th century. World War II had ended before Penn established a rare book and manuscript department. By then, notable collections already formed its core. Alongside the Furness Memorial were Edgar Fahs Smith's collection of chemistry, alchemy, and history of science, and Henry Charles Lea's library of late medieval and early modern Church history, governance, and the Inquisition. Incunables, Bibles, manuscript and printed Aristoteliana, Elzevier imprints, Leibniz, Meso-American linguistic studies, Americana, Franklin, Jonathan Swift, English fiction through 1830, Italian Renaissance poetry, Spanish Golden Age literature, the French Revolution, 19th-century French drama, cryptology, cookery—these too became strengths.
Archival collections include Theodore Dreiser, Lewis Mumford, Alma Mahler and Franz Werfel, Marian Anderson, Eugene Ormandy, Harry Mathews, and Philadelphia's cultural, artistic, and musical institutions. A large group of manuscripts documents Medici finances, another South Asian religion and philosophy. Individual manuscripts include a 14th-century Wyclif New Testament in English, a 15th-century Apicius, holograph plays by Lope de Vega, Mathew Carey's diary, and a Bartók string quartet.
These collections support Penn's research and teaching mission. The library also reaches out to broader communities through lectures and exhibitions of materials historically important, intrinsically interesting, and also—and frequently!—of simply jaw-dropping physical beauty.
University of Pennsylvania
Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library
3420 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104-6206
(215) 898-7088 (t)
(215) 573-9079 (f)