Scattered collections, brittle diaries, rare artifacts, handwritten plays, and more are flashing across computer screens worldwide, via the University's groundbreaking digital library project.


by Calef Brown



Ms.Doro Petre, who lived in America in the early 1700s, had a great recipe for almond pudding: “A quorter of a pound of almonds, 8 yoaks of egges, and 1/2 lb of butter, and halfe a pound of light honey sugear, and the peal of a leamon.”

She also had a concoction for combating consumption (tuberculosis): “Take 1 ounce of liquorish, 1 ounce of anneseeds, 1 ounce of fox lungs, 1/2 an ounce of flower of brimston, 4 drachms of alecampane & 4 ounces of brown or white sugar candy, beat all these to a fine powder & take as much att a time as will lye upon a groute, either fasting or going to bed it is best, but any time so it be 2 hours from eating.”

Such mixtures came from Petre’s 1705 cookbook, where herbal remedies had a place beside such edibles as “potato Pye,” venison sauce, pickled mushrooms, and wine custard. Early cookbooks, according to Michael Ryan, the director of rare books and manuscripts at Van Pelt Library, tell us about Colonial medicine, the culinary arts, and women’s roles in 18th-century home life.

To read Ms. Petre’s book in her own loopy ink, you could travel across campus or around the world to the sixth floor of Van Pelt library, make a request to see it, and remain at a carrel with the dusty volume—the pages are as brittle and discolored as Goody Petre’s French bread, so you can’t take them with you. However, the pages also have been scanned by the staff of the library so that they can appear, as is, on your computer screen, allowing you to voyeuristically peek into a young woman’s innermost culinary thoughts. And just a few mouse-clicks away are page upon page from Philadelphian Elizabeth Cowperthwaite’s 1857-58 personal diaries; images of Alexander Calder’s and Alexander Lieberman’s respective large red steel sculptures on opposite ends of the Penn campus; pages from Shakespeare’s original folios; and the 1909 Sears, Roebuck annual corporate report, which cheerfully announces a tidy profit of $6 million. This is all part of the virtual infrastructure being laid for Penn’s evolving “digital library,” a growing cyber-tool that allows rare and scholarly materials to be viewed, linked, and compared side by side on the Web.

The goal of Penn’s groundbreaking digital library project, which can be entered by clicking a link on the University library system’s main Web page (www. library.upenn.edu) is not just accessibility via computer screen—it is also easy utilization of information, with possibilities like “hotlinking” footnotes, so that someone reading a research paper might click on a footnote and then zoom directly to the article to which the paper just referred. Another project allows viewers to cross reference Shakespeare’s plays with a number of contemporary works that Shakespeare might have read—for example, 400-year-old pages of Hamlet and a 16th century Bible appear side by side on a computer screen.

Five years of work have made Penn’s growing digital library one of the best in the world. Along with similar projects elsewhere, it will change scholarship by making more and more items visible, linkable, and accessible from all over.

No longer will scholars studying the 10th-century Egyptian Genizah text fragments that describe Mediterranean Jewish life have to travel to Philadelphia, New York, and the United Kingdom to see all of them, or to put the pieces together. No longer will music fans wanting to hear Robert and Molly Freedman’s 3,000 Yiddish folk records have to visit the couple’s home in Philadelphia. And someday, no longer will a scholar who wants to look at a collection of Colonial cookbooks, a favorite of Michael Ryan’s, have to visit the sixth floor of Van Pelt.

“They contain unexpected surprises,” says Ryan about the cookbooks, “and that’s the stuff of scholarship.”




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