Penn Libraries blog takes collections off the shelves

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Penn Libraries

A printed ticket found inside one of the manuscript volumes.

Libraries hold treasures. Yet not everyone has the time or opportunity to stroll regularly through the stacks to uncover these buried gems.

That is why Penn Libraries has launched a new blog called Unique at Penn that brings those discoveries off the shelves. With posts that describe, depict, and provide historical context for unusual books and manuscripts, the blog allows internet users to easily engage with the undiscovered and under-discovered collections within the University’s library system.

“We felt the blog was a good way to reveal some of the intriguing holdings we have either stashed away in our stacks or that we’re newly acquiring,” says Martha Brogan, director of collection development and management for Penn Libraries.

Mitch Fraas, the Bollinger Fellow in Library Innovation at Penn, is the managing editor of Unique at Penn. He is also the author of the first series of posts, which bring to life an 18th century manuscript the library recently acquired: the original minute books of a London orphanage for girls, which opened in 1758 and remained in operation until 1968.

Fraas combed through the minutes to highlight aspects of daily life at the orphanage, which can read like scenes from a Charles Dickens novel.

One post, for example, includes a scanned page of the minutes detailing the girls’ weekly meal plan. Rice milk was prescribed for breakfast on Sundays and Wednesdays; roasted mutton and “garden stuff” comprised dinner on the weekends. The minutes also underscore the importance of education to the orphanage’s mission, as records of regular lessons in reading and writing, as well as knitting and sewing, attest.

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A typical weekly menu at the Asylum for Orphan Girls from March 1760.

Such details, says Fraas, not only make for interesting reading, but could also plant a seed of inspiration for a budding scholar.

“A line item in a catalog that says something like ‘orphanage records’ may not excite someone, but being able to see some of the material and understand its context could inspire a dissertation project or perhaps an undergraduate research paper,” he says.

The blog is only a few weeks old but it is already attracting readers and comments from inside and outside the Penn community.

Lithographs of ancient Persian etchings and a volume of letters exchanged between friends in 19th century America will provide fodder for future posts. In addition, Fraas is seeking ideas for entries from library users who have found treasures of their own.

“I’d love as many people at Penn to be engaged in and contributing to this as possible,” he says.

Fore more information, visit the Unique at Penn website.

Originally published on May 24, 2012