The Library at 250
By Adam Corson-Finnerty and Michael Ryan
Inter silvas academi quaerere verum 1
The University claims Benjamin Franklin as its founder, or at least as primus inter pares. The Library also acknowledges the leading role played by Franklin in making sure that the new school in Philadelphia had books. Franklin was one of the Library 's earliest donors, and, as a Trustee, he saw to it that funds were allocated for the purchase of texts from London.
Franklin casts a long shadow over the history of the Library. Like its founder, the Library has been practical, resourceful, and unostentatious. For Franklin, books were tools for improvement: improvement of self, of society, of the material world. Books were only as valuable as they were useful. Size was less important than content and quality. The Penn Library may not be the largest of its kind, but then it has never aspired to be. Rather, it has sought to be eminently useful to the diverse constituency of scholars, students, and the public who have had recourse to its resources since 1750. In this it has succeeded, and then some.
Why does the Library date its origins from 1750, when the University itself claims 1740? Good question. The answer is quite simple: the University dates itself from the founding of the Charitable School at 4th and Arch Streets in 1740. The opening of the Library, however, coincided with the opening of the College, Academy, and Charitable School of Philadelphia in 1750. In that year, Lewis Evans presented inscribed and dated copies of works by John Milton and Abraham Cowley to the new institution. They are our first evidence of Library books, and we still have them.
We also still have the 100 leather-bound volumes from the Imprimerie Royale, a gift in 1784 from His Majesty, Louis XVI, King of France. Through the 19th century, the Penn Library grew at a leisurely pace. By the end of its first year, the Library's collection amounted to a mere 90 volumes. By 1891 (when the first dedicated library building, the Furness Library, opened) we possessed a modest 55,000 volumes. The Library took another 54 years to reach one million volumes. But this year, as Penn admitted the Class of 2004, the combined collections hit the five million mark.
But volume tallies do not truly describe how and how much the Library has grown.
What then is the measure of a 21st century library? In a word, access.
Access to information on the Web (we collect and catalog worthy sites); access to e-journals and e-newspapers (we link to over 3,000 e-journals, sorted by subject); access to licensed databases which contain vast quantities of research-level material (think Medline, think Lexis-Nexis); access to rare and unique items through digital scanning (early Shakespeare, 19th century women's diaries, 4,000 photos from Marian Anderson's illustrious career). And there's more. Through cooperative arrangements with Columbia and Yale, their vast print holdings are available through a fast-track lending system. If those two worthy libraries don't have what's sought, the patron can leap directly to the combined catalog of the top research libraries in the world, and place an interlibrary loan order through a web-based form.
The Penn campus always sports new building projects. Currently we can see the evidence on Spruce Street (the new Museum wing), and on Locust Walk (the new Wharton building) and at 40th Street (a cinema and a food store). And anyone who walks into the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center can see the sparkling new Goldstein Undergraduate Study Center, or glimpse at the final construction phase of our video and film viewing theater facility.
But what the Penn community cannot see is that the Penn Library is currently engaged in one of the most challenging of all construction projects, one for which no shared blueprints exist and where there is literally no firm ground. Together with leading libraries around the world, we are creating a vast library in cyberspace, one in which every networked computer, every wireless-linked laptop, perhaps every digital phone and PDA will have 24/7/365 access. Our partners in this effort are not just fellow libraries, but include governments, corporations, museums, publishing houses, and even individual pioneers like Brewster Kahle (founder of the Internet Archive) and Paul Ginsparg (founder of the physics archive, now www.arXiv.org).
Vice Provost and Director of Libraries Paul Mosher occasionally reminds us that our task is nothing less than building a "paradise for scholars." Some years ago, that paradise might have been constructed of good books, an up-to-date card catalog, good lighting, plenty of seats, and knowledgeable librarians within easy reach. That version of Library Paradise still seems appealing. However, scholarly communication has not confined itself to the printed page, and increasing numbers of scholars feel their dorm room, study or office is the ideal physical location for undertaking research. Our new vision of paradise has to incorporate the presence of the machine in the academic grove.
This is an exciting--and occasionally unnerving--time to be a librarian. Our role as keepers and finders is well established. Our role as builders is often recognized. But our role as architects, pioneers, and advocates for new information systems is still developing. Our present task is to bring that role to maturity without losing sight of our other paradise-building responsibilities.
1 Seek truth among the groves of academe One of
the many adages, apothegms, and aphorisms found in the Fisher Fine Arts
Library (formerly known as the Furness Library)
Adam Corson-Finnerty is Library Director of Development and External Affairs.
Dr. Michael Ryan is Director of the Walter and Leonore
Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library. He recently edited The
Penn Library Collections at 250, a book that details the scope and history
of some of the most famous special collections at Penn.
Almanac, Vol. 47, No. 11, November 7, 2000