Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Considered one of the finest repositories of rare books in the nation, the Rare Book Collection of the State Library of Pennsylvania was, at its conception, nothing more than an accumulation of law books necessary for the founding fathers to organize and govern the province. In­deed, for two more centuries, the collection of rarities and unique volumes, as it is known and safeguarded today, was virtually nonexistent. Its ori­gins may have been accidental, but its heritage is unparalleled. The building of the Common­wealth’s prized collection parallels the significant events – and individuals – of both state and nation. And its roots date to the government origi­nally established by Pennsyl­vania’s founder, William Penn.

In 1745, the Pennsylvania Assembly, the lawmaking body of William Penn’s prov­ince, was busy putting the finishing touches on its new State House in Philadelphia, its first permanent home. Although the first Assembly was convened by Penn at Chester, Delaware County, in December 1682, it was not until 1729 that “the House took into consideration the neces­sity of a House for the Assem­bly of this Province to meet in.” Work on the structure was marked by many annoying delays and the rooms were still unfinished when the Assem­bly officially took possession in 1741. Four years later, ameni­ties were considered: curtains were ordered for the windows, the handsome silver inkstand was provided for the Speaker’s table, and some books and maps were ordered for the entire Assembly’s use.

The Assembly’s last item of business on February 5, 1745/ 46, before its adjournment until February 24, “ordered, That the Clerk send to Eng­land for the best edition of the Statutes at Large, for the use of the House, and also for some large Maps (one of North America) to be hung up in the Assembly Room.”

Twenty-seven years had passed since the death of Pennsylvania’s founder. His three sons, John, Thomas and Richard, had become joint proprietaries of the land, as well as the government. They clung to their governmental rights and opposed all at­tempts to abolish the proprie­torship. As early as 1742 the Assembly had petitioned the Crown to convert the colony into a Royal Province, but the Board of Trade declined to take action. Support for these movements was strong among the Quakers who found it difficult to forgive the brothers for abandoning their religious principles and returning to the Church of England.

It was probably in the midst of such controversies and others concerning war that the Assembly decided to have its clerk obtain the best edition of the Statutes at Large, the laws of England from Magna Charta to King George II by which all English subjects were gov­erned and to which the As­sembly’s legislation had to conform.

There is no indication that the Assembly members had actually planned to establish a library. An adequate library already existed in Philadel­phia. The Library Company, a subscription library, had been founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731. The legislators simply wanted a reference set of the English statutes available for their use.

The Assembly’s Clerk, to whom the order was given, was no stranger to the busi­ness of ordering books. As a printer and bookseller, as well as librarian, Benjamin Franklin regularly corresponded with William Strahan, a London bookseller and friend. The Assembly’s order must not have been of a very high prior­ity, because it was not until three months later, in May 1746, that Franklin concluded a letter to Strahan by asking:

… And to desire you to send me two setts of Popple’s Mapps of N. America one bound the other in Sheets, they are for our Assem­bly; they also want the Statutes at large, but as I hear they are risen to an extravagant Price, I will have you send me word what they will cost before you send them . .. P.S. I forgot to mention that there must be some other large Map of the whole World, or of Asia, or Africa, or Europe, of equal size with Popple’s to match it; they being to be hung, one on each side the Door in the Assem­bly Room; if none can be had of equal Size, send some Prospects of principal Cities, or the like, to be pasted on the Sides, to make up the Bigness.

Apparently the price for the Statutes at large was not exorbi­tant. In August 1747, the Loan Office recorded payment of fifty-seven pounds, fifteen shillings to “Benjamin Franklin for Statutes at large sent for by order of the House.” However, the maps had not arrived with the books, and a persistent Franklin again requested, in a letter written in November, that the maps be sent at the first opportunity. He again suggested that if it was diffi­cult to find a map as large as the Popple map, then views of cities and buildings could be pasted together to conform in size. It seemed more a matter of aesthetics than geography, since Franklin mentioned that they were destined for the Assembly Room and the long gallery in the State House.

William Strahan managed to find something suitable; in September V48 the Public Accounts Report listed a pay­ment of seventy-seven pounds, one shilling, and one pence to Benjamin Franklin “as Clerk of the House, and for Maps, Expresses, and Postage of Letters.” About six weeks later, in October, Frank­lin acknowledged receipt of the maps in a letter to Strahan.

During the next three and a half years, significant changes occurred in the leadership of the Assembly. Isaac Norris II, son-in-law of James Logan and an avid book collector, was elected Speaker of the House. Benjamin Franklin relin­quished his appointed post as Clerk of the Assembly and was elected as a representative from the City of Philadelphia. It is not surprising that the Assembly should become interested in acquiring more books. But this time the cost did not seem to matter.

On March 4, 1752, the House requested Norris to purchase as many laws of the neighboring provinces as he could, and “such other suit­able Law Books as he may think necessary.” The Trustees of the Loan Office were di­rected to finance their pur­chase. The order must have been of greater priority than the last, for Norris wasted no time in placing it. In a March 16, 1752, communique to be delivered to Thomas Osborne or John Whiston, he included a hastily drawn up list of some fifty English law titles for the Assembly. Five months later, in August, he was reimbursed 170 pounds “toward purchasing books and window-glass.” The window glass was probably for book­case doors.

With the Statutes at Large and Norris’ order of more than fifty law books, the Pennsylva­nia Assembly was well on its way toward building one of the finest law libraries among the colonial assemblies. It was no secret that Norris and Franklin were the promoters of such a project. Less than five months after Norris’ order of law books was received and paid for, the House requested its Speaker and Benjamin Franklin, in January 1753, “to procure such Books and Maps as they may think suitable and necessary for the use of this House; and it is Ordered, That the Trustees of the Loan Office do supply them with such sums of money as they may require for that purpose; which shall be allowed by the Committee of Accounts, in their next settlement with the paid Trustees.”

That blank check from the Assembly underscored the importance the early law­makers placed on their new library, especially since all members were not of scholarly bent as were Norris and Frank­lin. Many members had little education and represented the frontier where pioneers were arduously engaged in clearing the land and raising crops. However, they recognized the importance of books for both their reference and their recre­ational value. With Benjamin Franklin and Isaac Norris involved in the selection of titles, history, geography, architecture, science, and philosophy – as well as law­books – were probably added about this time. What had begun as an apparent neces­sity in 1745/46 with the pur­chase of the Statutes was becoming a perquisite for the members of the Assembly. By 1754, the Assembly had spent more than eleven hundred pounds for its collection of books and maps.

The Assembly built a siz­able collection, but the term “library” had not yet been officially associated with it. Although established rules for its use did not exist, it is doubtful whether anyone except members of the Assem­bly enjoyed access to it. The Clerk probably cared for the books, and the honor system prevailed.

On December 26, 1754, Charles Norris, a prominent Philadelphia merchant, book collector and brother of House Speaker Isaac Norris II, offered his services as “Keeper of the Assembly Library.” The House passed a resolution accepting his offer, making Charles Norris the first appointed State Librarian. He most likely served on a volunteer basis since there is no record of a salary ever having been paid to him. His duties probably con­sisted of keeping the books in order and ensuring that those which were borrowed were properly – and promptly­ – returned.

Whenever Charles Norris resigned from his post as li­brarian, the duties probably reverted to the Clerk of the Assembly. In January 1767, it was the Clerk who was ordered to have a catalogue made of all the books in the Assembly Library and to have the words “Assembly of Penn­sylvania” stamped in gilt let­ters on the front cover of each book. The gilt stamping was undertaken by Samuel Taylor, a Philadelphia bookbinder, who was paid seventeen pounds, fourteen shillings, in September 1767 “for binding and lettering Books for the House.” That first catalogue, probably a handwritten list of books contained in a note­book, did not survive. More than twenty years later a com­mittee reported they could find no catalogue made prior to the American Revolution.

Today more than four hun­dred volumes safeguarded by the Rare Book Section of the State Library of Pennsylvania still bear that distinctive stamp. These early volumes from the Original Assembly Collection represent the core of the State Library’s collec­tions.

The Assembly publications have survived wars, fire and floods due to the care taken by the state government to protect its valuable library. After Gen. George Washington’s defeat at Brandywine in 1777, the Su­preme Executive Council con­vened in September and ordered “that the books in the library belonging to the state be sent immediately to Easton, in Northampton County, and committed to the care of Rob­ert Levers, Esq …” Fourteen boxes and two trunks were sent. When the Assembly met in Lancaster in November, its journal noted the presence of the books there and recorded concern because they had been damaged by weather and dampness.

It is a mystery why the books – which were ordered sent to Easton in September­ – should appear in Lancaster two months later. At the time, the British were en route between Philadelphia and Lan­caster, and the route north from Philadelphia to Easton was safer. The books were kept in Easton for a time, then moved to Lancaster while the British occupied Philadelphia. After the British evacuated Philadelphia in 1778, the books were not returned from Lan­caster until suitable quarters had been refurbished to ac­commodate them the follow­ing year.

Twenty years after the li­brary was returned to Philadel­phia, it was packed again for another trip – again to Lancas­ter, which was to become the temporary state capital. This time the relocation was not so urgent and the route to Lan­caster more direct.

The Constitution of 1789 provided for a legislature made up of two houses. With the addition of the Senate, the senators became interested in the building and the mainte­nance of the library. During their tenure in Lancaster, reso­lutions were introduced in the Senate and the House to estab­lish rules governing the use of the library and to provide for the post of librarian to be shared on a rotating basis by the clerks of the House and the Senate. However, the for­mal resolutions were laid on the table and apparently were left there. The discussions of the library questions seem to have awakened the senators to the benefits of books; no sooner were the resolutions set aside than the Senate ordered its clerk to obtain the Ameri­can edition of Jacob’s Law Dictionary and Espinasse’s Di­gest of the practice of law “for the use of the Senate.” Appar­ently the order was the begin­ning of the separate Senate library.

The state government moved its offices to Harrisburg in October 1812, and it occu­pied the recently completed Dauphin County Courthouse until its permanent Capitol, designed by Stephen Hills, was completed in 1822. The library was quickly moved into the second floor room used by the town council.

During the early years in Harrisburg, the Senate was busy building its own library collection. Finally, in 1816 a resolution was introduced in the Senate providing for a joint committee to consider the library. The House soon adopted a similar resolution. The committee concluded that the library contained a number of rare and valuable works that were being exposed to injury and loss due to insufficient care. The members also be­lieved that the practice of pur­chasing books by each House, without consultation by the two, led to needless duplica­tion and useless expense. The committee recommended consolidation of the libraries, the employment of a librarian, and the appointment of a joint committee of the two Houses to direct the appropriation for the purchase of books.

A joint resolution was pre­sented to appoint a committee to draft legislation based on the recommendations. The bill, entitled an “Act to provide for the better preservation and increase of the library of this Commonwealth,” was passed by the Senate and House with minor amendments. It was signed by Gov. Simon Snyder and became law on February 28, 1816. The State Library finally enjoyed a legal entity, complete with provisions for its maintenance and assured growth.

In 1822 the library moved into its new quarters in the northwestern corner of the second floor of the new Capi­tol. As the library acquired materials and grew, the space soon became inadequate. During the late 1850s, the librarian used considerable ink describing the deplorable conditions, with books crammed in overflowing closets, drawers and boxes. Storage shelves which had been constructed in the attic groaned under the heavy tomes. He advised the legisla­ture of the dangerous accumu­lation of tons of books directly over the heads of the senators, specifically noting that the attic floor had not been con­structed to bear such a great weight.

Confederate forces invaded Pennsylvania in 1863 and moved through the Cum­berland Valley toward Harris­burg, and as they did, preparations were made to evacuate the public property. On the night of June 26, the books of the library, number­ing approximately twenty­-three thousand volumes, were hastily pulled from the shelves, loosely loaded into a freight car, and taken to Philadelphia, where they were stashed in a fireproof building. A few weeks later the library was returned, eventually re­stored to its cramped and crowded quarters.

The library’s conditions were not improved until 1867 when the library was moved into the ground floor of a large new addition built onto the rear of the Capitol. At the time it was built, it was considered to be an elegant and well­-planned library room with adequate space for expansion. But, as with all its locations, these quarters were merely temporary. In 1894 the library was moved from its chamber in the Capitol to its new fire­proof building, just south of the Capitol. It was a fortunate move; on December 2, 1897, the Capitol, including the former library room, was com­pletely destroyed by fire.

During Gov. Gifford Pin­chot’s reorganization of state government in 1922, the State Library was assigned to the Department of Public Instruc­tion, now the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The department moved into its new Education Building in 1931, and occupied its present quarters on the spacious lower floors.

Ironically enough, the li­brary has grown rather desul­torily without much conscious planning. Many of the books which were purchased over the years and moved about with the library from location to location are still part of the collections. So much material grew old and rare on the shelves that a Rare Book Sec­tion was established to pre­serve the treasures in 1965. Paramount among these are the several hundred volumes of the Original Assembly Col­lection, including the seven­-volume set of the Statutes at Large. One of the greatest original acquisitions, Popple’s Map of North America, is no longer with the collection. Probably because of its size, it was left in the State House in Philadelphia when the govern­ment moved westward in 1799. The huge map is now at the American Philosophical Soci­ety, another Philadelphia insti­tution founded by Benjamin Franklin.

Among the treasures con­tained in the collection are representatives of the art of printing from its earliest years. Books printed during the “cra­dle years” of printing are known as “incunabula,” of which the library has one example, the famous Nurem­berg Chronicle printed in Nur­emberg, Germany, in 1493. One of the earliest illustrated books, this religious history of the world contains more than two thousand woodcuts.

The sixteenth century is represented by such notable works as Abraham Ortelius’ Theatrum Terrarum, printed in Antwerp in 1570. The work was the first published atlas and contains maps showing the Americas.

Among the treasures of the seventeenth century are the writings of William Penn. A majority of them are religious in nature, defending and pro­pounding Quaker beliefs. But there is also his letter to the Free Society of Traders of the Province of Pennsylvania re­siding in London. Written just ten months after his arrival in his province, Penn enthusiastically described the soil, air, water and produce of his be­loved land. He also character­ized the people already living here, including the Indians and the early Dutch settlers. This letter and his Account of the Province in Pennsylvania, 1681 were translated into German and Dutch and circu­lated widely throughout the continent. They were instru­mental in attracting large num­bers of European settlers to Pennsylvania.

During the eighteenth century, printing grew as a significant industry in Phila­delphia and Benjamin Franklin became one of the most impor­tant and influential printers of his time. Among his works represented in the library’s collection are his Poor Richard’s Almanac, issues of his Pennsyl­vania Gazette, and one of the finest typographical works of the time, Cicero’s Cato Major, as translated by James Logan for Isaac Norris, the elder.

A celebrated eighteenth­-century printing press outside of Philadelphia was in use at Ephrata Cloister, the religious community in Lancaster County. Among the issues from the Ephrata press, the library owns copies of Bracht’s Der Blutige Schau-Platz oder Martyrer Spiegel, known as the “Martyr’s Mirror” and distin­guished as the largest book printed in colonial America. In addition to printing it, the Brotherhood undertook the responsibility for translating it from Dutch into German and making their own paper for its production. It took fifteen Cloister members three years to complete this project, un­dertaken at the behest of the Mennonites. Before Ephrata established its printing press in 1745 the work was in manu­script. The State Library trea­sures two extremely rare examples of the beautifully illuminated manuscript hymn-books rendered by the sect’s sisters. The books of words for these hymns, as well as other German materials, were printed on the press of Chris­topher Saur in Germantown.

In 1743, Christopher Saur printed the first bible printed in a European language in America. During the first half of the eighteenth century, bibles were imported and relatively expensive and Saur’s intention was to print a bible that almost anyone could afford. In his eagerness to please both the German sec­tarians and church people in his choice of editions, Saur pleased no one, finding his work denounced by most of the preachers, including Henry Melchior Muhlenberg. It took two decades for the edition of twelve hundred copies to sell. Nevertheless, in 1763 Christopher Saur II is­sued an exact reprint of his father’s 1743 bible, using the same type and ornaments, with American-made paper, probably from Saur’s own paper mill.

The third edition of the Saur bible was the first bible printed with American-made type. On its publication in 1776, it was still the only European-language bible printed in America. When the Saur shop was seized and sold at auction by the Americans in 1778, numerous unbound copies of the edition of three thousand were available. David Hall, a Philadelphia publisher and former partner of Benjamin Franklin, purchased the unbound editions and sold some of the sheets to the American army for car­tridge paper. Peter Liebert, a Germantown bookbinder, bought the remainder from Hall and years later, when he became a printer, reprinted missing sheets and bound and sold the bibles. They were still on sale as late as 1812.

As America expanded west­ward in the nineteenth century, journals of travel and exploration became important sources of information about the new, intriguing lands. Printing presses also moved westward to provide reading material to the frontier. Among the library’s nineteenth­ century treasures are Patrick Gass’ A Journal of the Voyages and Travels of Capt. Lewis and Clark from the Mouth of the River Missouri to the Pacific Ocean. Printed in Pittsburgh in 1807, it precedes the official account of the Lewis and Clark explora­tion by seven years. The li­brary also owns the official account of the journey, History of the Expedition Under the Com­mand of Captains Lewis and Clark to the … Pacific Ocean, by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, printed in Philadelphia by Bradford and Inskeep in 1814.

Because of the influence of the Quaker settlement of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia became an early center of anti­slavery sentiment. Anthony Benezet’s Caution and Warning to Great Britain, and Her Colo­nies, in a Short Representation of the Calamitous State of the Enslaved Negroes, printed in Phila­delphia in 1776, was one of the most important early works of this movement. A copy is now in the collection.

In many of the Rare Book Collection’s early periodicals appear the earliest printings of documents which have had tremendous impact on Ameri­can life. The November 1814 issue of The Analectic Magazine contains an anonymously published poem entitled “The Defence of Fort M’Henry,” the first magazine printing of what has become known as “The Star Spangled Banner,” by Francis Scott Key. The first newspaper printing of the United States Constitution filled the entire four-page issue of The Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser for Wednes­day, September 19, 1787, printed by John Dunlap and David C. Claypoole.

Although most of the mate­rials in the State Library’s rare book collection have been the library for many years, in the collection continues to acquire through purchases and gifts. A recent gift of historical im­portance to Pennsylvania is the Mason-Dixon map, a gift of the Chew family of German­town. The family patriarch, Benjamin Chew, was a mem­ber of the boundary commis­sion that hired Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon to survey the boundary between Penn­sylvania and Maryland and end a long-standing dispute between the two colonies and their proprietors. The survey was ended in September 1768, about thirty miles short of the goal, when Indians would not permit the surveyors to pass beyond a certain point. Upon their return to Philadelphia, James Smither was paid twelve pounds to engrave two copper plates for the map, and Robert Kennedy printed it for another twenty pounds.

These are but a few of the treasures in the State Library’s Rare Book Section. The Origi­nal Assembly Collection and those volumes acquired later are a tribute to an Assembly that recognized the value of a library to the government of Pennsylvania. The passage of time has proven the legislators’ wisdom in building an eclectic collection rather than just a basic law library. Conse­quently, the finest Colonial Assembly library has grown with the care and nurture of succeeding generations librarians to become the of distin­guished State Library of Pennsylvania.


For Further Reading

Alderfer, E. Gordon. The Ephrata Commune: An Early American Counterculture. Pittsburgh: University of Pitts­burgh Press, 1985.

Bliss, Robert P. A History of the Pennsylvania State Library. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Library Association, 1937.

Etting, Frank Marx. An Histori­cal Account of the Old State House of Pennsylvania Now Known as the Hall of Indepen­dence. Boston: J. R. Osgood, 1876.

Hildeburn, Charles S. R. A Cen­tury of Printing: the Issues of the Press in Pennsylvania, 1685-1784. New York: Burt Franklin, 1968.

Korey, Marie Elena. The Books of Isaac Norris (1701-1766) at Dickinson College. Carlisle, Pa: Dickinson, 1976.


Barbara E. Deibler, a native of Pottsville, received her bachelor of arts degree from the Pennsylvania State University and her master’s of library science from Drexel University. She currently serves as rare book librarian and assist­ant coordinator of collection man­agement for the State Library of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg. She is the author of the 1978 publica­tion, Simplified Cataloging for Libraries. Several of her articles and book reviews have appeared in Pennsylvania Portfolio, a publication of the Dauphin County Library System.