Penn’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library has a message for students, alumni, and book lovers everywhere. Online or on campus, come up and see us sometime!
By JoAnn Greco



Mar|Apr 09 Contents
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On the first crisp evening of the Fall semester, some 50 students stuffed themselves into the baronial Henry Charles Lea Library. The room, tucked away on the sixth floor of Van Pelt Library, was overheated, and shrugged-off backpacks and jackets lay in heaps on the oriental rugs. Their owners had come to this session of the weekly seminar in the History of Material Texts to take an intimate look at a very small (five inches by three-and-a-half inches), very old (11th-century) parchment book containing the Book of Psalms. Known as a psalter, the volume is one of the stars of the Lawrence J. Schoenberg & Barbara Brizdle Manuscript Initiative, an effort to help Penn’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML) build its collection of pre-1600 works. That initiative has seen the acquisition of 10 codices—handwritten, bound books (as opposed to scrolls)—and half a dozen fragments in the last two years.

While some items are bought at auction, most of the materials included in the RBML—which was formally created in the 1940s to assemble some 200 years of collecting under one roof and one acquisition program—come via donations. Not every one of the 300,000 or so items that make up the collection is, technically speaking, rare, or even all that old. It includes the entire archives of Philadelphia-based Curtis Publishing, the complete papers of local author and Penn professor Chaim Potok, and dozens of other special assemblages covering everything from the history of chemistry to Shakespeare through the ages.

In December, the RBML received the contents of the legendary Gotham Book Mart, a New York institution frequented by generations of book lovers and literary folk, which closed its doors in 2007. In all, about 200,000 items—advance reading copies, small press publications, and volumes of modern and contemporary literature, among other materials—were given to the University by an anonymous donor; they had earlier been bought for $400,000 at auction by the store’s landlords.

Open Treasure By JoAnn Greco
Photography by Candace diCarlo

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©2009 The Pennsylvania Gazette

Top, left: Detail, Book of Hours, use of Rouen (Rouen, France, ca. 1475); Below, left: Gotham City: David McKnight, Daniel Traister, and H. Carton Rogers with delectables from the Gotham Book Mart.

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  ©2009 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 3/03/09