Preservation and Renewal


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My wife Carole Bernstein C’81 calls her visit to Penn’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library back when she was an undergraduate “one of the best things I got to do at Penn.” As part of her class in Renaissance poetry she was able to hold and read in a 16th-century commonplace book, and copy down a poem she found there to analyze.

Although I spent a fair amount of time at Van Pelt Library—and even worked for a year on the night-shift at Rosengarten Reserve for my work-study job—I never made the trek to the RBML’s home on the sixth floor. Sadly, except for a handful of exhibits and public events, I haven’t done much better in the decade-plus that I’ve been working here.

That’s been my loss, as this issue’s cover story, “Open Treasure,” by freelancer JoAnn Greco makes abundantly clear. But apparently I’m not alone. “So many alumni tell me that they never went to the sixth floor, that they didn’t know they were welcome up there,” Director of Libraries H. Carton Rogers told JoAnn, adding, “I sure want to change that.”

Besides spreading the word on campus and among alumni about the collections—some highlights of which appear in the striking photographs by Candace diCarlo that accompany the article—the RBML is also using the latest in digital technology to open its materials to a much broader, worldwide audience. Through the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image (SCETI), the library is digitizing a dizzying variety of items in its collections, from an 11th-century volume of the Book of Psalms (focus of an entire class last fall) to World War I-era comics.

If the RBML casts a wide net—its collections also include photographic images, music scores, and circus posters, in addition to books—that same eclectic spirit and fine eye for juxtaposition animates alumnus Nick Spitzer C’72 in his popular public-radio show American Routes (“songs and stories from the bayous to the beltways, from crossroads to crosstown, from coast to coast”). Spitzer is profiled by senior editor Samuel Hughes in “Digging Routes.”

Routes has been widely praised for the way it manages to mix erudition—a serious study of the strains of American music and how they interact—with entertainment—great songs and provocative interviews. “I’m both a media person and a culture person,” Spitzer told Sam. “Life for me has pulsated between those points.”

The immediate occasion for our article was the 10th anniversary of the New Orleans-based show, which is broadcast on more than 300 stations across the country, but Sam’s piece covers the arc of Spitzer’s career as a folklorist and radio performer from his days at WXPN in its most freewheeling era—when he once had to keep another DJ from going on air while tripping—through his experience of Hurricane Katrina and his role in the city’s ongoing recovery. It also touches on Spitzer’s extraordinary personal story of recovery from cancer that almost killed him before he turned 30.

—John Prendergast C’80



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