Free collection of rare books from the on-display library for hands-on history tours

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The central branch has launched ‘Hands-On History’, giving greater access to one of Philly’s best hidden gems.


Check out the free library’s collection of rare books. Photograph by Claudia Gavin

At some point in your life, you’ve probably read at least a few Charles Dickens novels, albeit only under duress in college. Oliver twist. A tale of two cities. Ebenezer Scrooge and his holiday ghosts at A Christmas Carol. But you probably didn’t know that some of the author’s original manuscripts and illustrations, and even the desk he wrote on, are here in Philly.

The central branch of the free library has one of the most diverse rare book collections of any public library in the country. There are thousands of medieval manuscripts, tablets dating from 5,000 years ago, tens of thousands of American children’s books, and original works by Edgar Allan Poe and Beatrix Potter, to name a few. -a. The public has long been able to make appointments for research projects, organize group tours, or take one of the free tours, but earlier this year library staff jumped on the programming bandwagon. and launched ‘Hands-On History’, where monthly themes (like the evolution of the detective story) inspire people to interact with the collection. (Not to mention just being in the rare books department on the third floor of the 1927 building is something worth experiencing.)

And on December 14, Dickens fans can immerse themselves in the holiday spirit by getting an up-close look at the department’s vast collection. Be sure to keep an eye out for the writer’s taxidermized animal crow, Grip. According to the story, Dickens’ wife banished the bird to the family barn, where Grip ate chippings of lead paint and died, to be replaced by another crow, also named Grip. Hey, Dickens was an eccentric.

Now if you think Wait, wasn’t it Edgar Allan Poe who had a thing for crows?, it turns out that Poe wrote a review of a Dickensian novel in which Grip appears (notably with the ability to speak), thus likely stumbling upon his inspiration for his poem “The Raven”.

And don’t assume you’re going to read Dickens’ papers while wearing sterile gloves. “Gloves really decrease your tactile sensitivity,” notes Caitlin Goodman, curator of the rare books department. “And we want our customers to interact. We want them to get involved and feel empowered. After all, it’s a public library, so it’s their collection.”

Published under the headline “What’s Old Is New” in the December 2019 issue of Philadelphia cream magazine.




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