The Henry Charles Lea Library

Film festival

Where: 6th floor of Van Pelt Library

Why: Because this magnificent wood-paneled library, complete with a fireplace, leaded skylight and 7,000 books was moved in its entirety from Dr. Lea’s Center City brownstone, creating an art-museum-worthy “period room” in the midst of Van Pelt’s sleek, modern spaces.

Who was Dr. Lea? A prominent Philadelphian and a major historian of the medieval Catholic church, Dr. Lea was known as a scholar of the Inquisition. The books in his library focus on medieval Europe, the Inquisition, ecclesiastical history and witchcraft. After he died in the 1920s, his family decided Penn was the logical place for his papers and his library. From 1929 until 1962, the library had its own wing in the Furness Library. When Van Pelt was built, the library was moved to its current location.

How Lea amassed his collection: “It was a different scholarly era,” says Van Pelt Rare Books and Manuscripts Specialist John Pollack. Lea had people buy books and documents for him in Europe and when the object of his desire was not for sale, says Pollack, “he sent people there to copy them by hand.” Van Pelt has boxes of those hand-written transcripts, which in themselves have value, since often the 16th- or 17th- century originals have since been lost.

Hocus pocus: Late in life Lea became fascinated with the history of witchcraft, and the library has a whole bookcase of tomes related to that topic, including works on demonology and witch trials.

Muse for sale: The sculptural busts that look down on the reading area from the library’s gallery, were bought at Wanamakers by Lea, according to Rare Books and Manuscripts Director Lynne Farrington. “They’re practical muses,” she says. “That was when you used to be able to buy everything at Wanamakers, including library decorations.”

Is it a Museum? No. The room is regularly used for classes. English Professor Peter Stallybrass, for example, holds seminars here on topics related to the history of the book, and, says Pollack, “We take out materials he can use in this room. There’s a nice synchronicity. It’s not just a museum. It’s used so students can learn more about rare book collections.”

Can anyone visit? That depends. Pollack says the room is booked up heavily for classes. If you’re interested in taking a peek, though, library staff will be happy to give you a tour, so long as there is no class in session.


Originally published on April 12, 2007