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

Three centuries after the birth of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), the world continues to be amazed by his overwhelming contributions, from the proprietary period in the early years of Pennsylvania through the birth of the United States of America. Of his many accomplishments, Franklin’s love of the printed word seems most obvious. In 1731, he and several friends founded the first subscription library in Philadelphia, the Library Company of Philadelphia. Pennsylvania’s early leaders desired be be “well read” and wanted European countries to know that the colonies were capable of taking their rightful place in the world community.

Printer by trade, bookseller, and librarian, Franklin was also clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly. Because Pennsylvania was a British colony, the provincial government and assemblymen needed to refer to English law and acts of parliament on a daily basis. In February 1745, the Assembly, meeting at the State House (now Independence Hall) in Philadelphia, directed Franklin to acquire the latest edition of The Statutes at Large and several maps, including one of North America. Correspondence reveals that Franklin was concerned about the cost of these publications, so he endeavored to obtain them at the best price possible. He placed the order for the seven-volume Statutes and the maps with William Strahan, a well-known London printer and bookseller. The books arrived in August 1747 and the maps in October 1748.

Seated in 1751 as an elected representative, Franklin no longer served as clerk of the Assembly, and son, William Franklin (1731-1813), was appointed to succeed him. The following year, the Assembly ordered the superintendents of the State House to build a committee room adjacent to its chamber. Isaac Norris II (1701-1766), Speaker of the Assembly and an avid collector of books, urged the purchase of volumes of laws from the neighboring provinces, additional English law books, and titles deemed suitable and necessary for use in the Assembly.

Pennsylvania’s leadership had settled in the State House in 1741 and quickly set about furnishing it with the amenities suitable for a governing body in the mid-eighteenth century. By 1753, additional space was needed for the Assembly’s growing number of books, and a library was added the following year. It’s highly doubtful that anyone other than members of the Assembly or the Provincial Council, the upper body of colonial Pennsylvania, had access to these books. This library was significant and valuable enough that there was need for a librarian to ensure that these books were properly maintained. To enforce borrowing policies and, especially, return procedures, Charles Norris, Speaker Isaac’s brother, was named “Keeper of the Assembly Library.”

In January 1767,the Assembly assigned clerk Charles Moore the task of inventorying and identifying the books owned by the Assembly. In addition to providing a list of authors and titles, Moore had the front cover of the books stamped in gilt lettering, Assembly of Pennsylvania. More than four hundred of those original volumes bearing the distinctive stamp are currently in the State Library of Pennsylvania’s Rare Collections Library.

As the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1774, relations between England and the colonies continued to deteriorate. During the meeting of the Second Continental Congress, the Assembly Library was an important asset to the delegates. John Adams recalled in his diary entry for June 15, 1775, that George Washington darted into the Library Room when the discussion opened to appoint Washington as general of the Continental Forces. Washington was seated among those library books while his fellow delegates unanimously voted for him to lead an army of rebellion against England’s King George III. Thomas Jefferson likely consulted library volumes as he organized his thoughts on independence from England before putting them on paper.

Pennsylvania prepared for self-government by calling a convention to produce a constitution. On July 15, 1776, less than two weeks after declaring independence, the delegates convened, with Benjamin Franklin presiding. Three days later a resolution was passed giving the convention members free access to the Commonwealth’s “public library.” The term public was not used as it is today to describe access for citizens; although the Assembly Library had been purchased with public funds, its purpose was for the legislature and government officials to use as they carried out their official duties. The Constitution of 1776 proiding for a unicameral legislature was completed by early autumn. Pennsylvania now had a one-house General Assembly of delegates elected from the counties and a Supreme Executive Council. Council president, Thomas Wharton Jr., was Pennsylvania’s chief executive officer. This new form of government replaced the old Provincial Assembly and provincial Council.

By the fall of 1777, the British military invasion had forced the Continental Congress and Pennsylvania’s government to flee Philadelphia to avoid imprisonment and, possibly,execution. To protect the endangered Assembly Library, the books were packed into fourteen boxes and two trunks and transported north to Easton in Northampton County. In addition to the books, other important government records were transported by wagon and by boat on the Delaware River to keep them our of British hands. State government next moved from Easton to Bethlehem, then to Reading, and settled in Lancaster while the Continental Congress moved to York. Not long after the state government assembled in Lancaster, the books were summoned from Easton. Inclement weather had damaged some of the books in shipment. After the leather bindings were cleaned, the volumes were cleaned, the volumes were made available to legislators. Some books, particularly the law tomes, we loaned to members of the Continental Congress who authorized payment for moving the library to York. After the british left Philadelphia in 1778, state government returned to the State House, but legislators discovered that the building’s interior did not fare well during the enemy occupation. The library books that arrived from Lancaster were unpacked, and inventoried on the second floor of the State House, and the staff made the disheartening discoverythat many volumes were missing. The Supreme Executive Council advertised in local newspapers through 1781 requesting the return of the valuable books.

During the warm summer of 1787, delegates arrived in Philadelphia to draft a constitution for the new United States of America. Presiding over Pennsylvania’s government was one of the new constitution’s leading advocates, Benjamin Franklin, despite being in poor health. The convention delegates, of course, shared the State House for their imporant work, and in all probability they also shared the library.

After Pennsylvania created a bicameral house and senate through its Constitution of 1790, state government returned to Lancaster in 1799.The library was packed once again for transport. It was 1812 when the General Assembly of Pennsylvania met for the first time in Harrisburg, in the Dauphin County Court House, while the State Capitol building was being built. Governor Simon Snyder signed an act in 1816 that made the State Library of Pennsylvania an agency of state government while the separate house and senate libraries were combined. The State Capitol was completed in 1822 and the books were given a new home on the second floor. The library quickly outgrew the space and by the 1850s, there was fear that the floor might collapse onto the heads of senators seated one floor below.

In the early summer of 1863, Confederate military forces moved toward southern Pennsylvania. Once again, war preparations were made to protect the state government – and its library – in Harrisburg. On the night of June 26, as an attack on Pennsylvania’s capital by advancing rebel troops seemed to be a distinct possibility, approximately twenty-three thousand volumes were pulled from State Library shelves, loaded into a railroad freight car, hauled to Philadelphia, and stored in a fireproof building. After the decisive Civil War battle at Gettysburg, and not Harrisburg, the library was returned to the Capitol several weeks later. By 1867, with its quarters considered to be inadequate, a large addition had been constructed onto the Capitol and the library was moved into the ground floor.

In 1894, the library moved into the Capitol Annex building (renamed the Speaker Mathew J. Ryan Legislative Office Building in 2003). On February 2, 1897, three years after the move, fire destroyed the State Capitol, but in the annex next door, the library was spared. The present State Capitol, considered one of the most beautiful in the nation, was dedicated on October 4, 1906, but the State Library would remain in a separate building.

In 1922, the State Library was assigned to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), and in 1931 moved into the State Education Building (renamed the Forum Building in 1969) in Harrisburg’s Capitol Complex. DPI was renamed the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) and the State Library continues to be housed in the lower floors of the Forum Building. Like many buildings erected in the 1930s, the Forum Building lacks modern heating, ventilating, air conditioning, humidity control, and air purification systems needed to protect historic treasures. Proper security, lighting, and fire detection and suppression are also critical to preserve paper-based collections.

In 1986, Barbara E. Deibler (1943-1991), rare books librarian, had the opportunity to choose a new space for the General Assembly Collection and other rare volumes. Selected items were moved from lower levels of the Forum Building to an upstairs room where window air conditioners were installed to assist with better temperature and humidity control. In 2006, these books were scheduled to move one more time on perhaps their shortest, but most important journey.

In 1998, the Governor’s Advisory Council on Library Development reported that the Forum Building’s substandard environmental conditions were having serious consequences. The Commonwealth’s most valuable and historic documents and volumes of inestimable research value were in critical condition. Many historic newspapers deteriorated to where they could no longer be handled, but viewed only on microfilm. In response to this situation, the advisory council formed a committee to address the stabilization and preservation of the collection. This bipartisan committee, with strong support from the executive branch and both houses of the General Assembly, continues to be the driving force to save this collection.

The Office of Commonwealth Libraries and the Rare Collections Committee developed a plan for improved housing of the State Library collections. In 2002, rare books archivist Jane Smith Stewart began assessing the collection’s condition in order to prioritize the most pressing needs. Due to the high fiber content in early paper, some of the oldest volumes – mostly those printed before the mid-nineteenth century – have survived much better than those of more recent years. These later items were published with papers contain- ing a high percentage of wood pulp commonly used in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, making them prone to deterioration.

As the committee proceeded with its task, members turned toward the most immediate and critical concern – the rare books entrusted to its care. They next addressed the needs of the rare newspaper collection and then materials classified as “transitionally rare.” (Transitionally rare materials, mostly printed after the mid-nineteenth century, possess chemical and physical properties more vulnerable to light and handling damage. They do not meet the criteria to be housed in the Rare Collections Library, but are of significant research value and need to be protected.) The Pennsylvania Department of General Services assigned staffer Cornelius (Neal)J. Rusnov as project architect and Larry L. Nesbit as chairman of the Rare Collections Committee. Before his recent retirement as director of Mansfield University of Pennsylvania’s North Hall Library, Dr. Nesbit shepherded the successful renovation of the university’s library; he is currently a member of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Library Development.

The rare volumes were moved to a specially designed vault in the Forum Building with adjacent reading room, workroom, and an entrance corridor. The rare books are housed o n compact metal shelving with provisions for constant air circulation. This project is the first attempt of its kind to use this preservation approach in which temperature, air purification, and relative humidity, in coordination with lighting and fire detection and suppression, are constantly monitored and kept within suitable parameters.

To evaluate the validity of the innovative approach and its environmental specifications, in 2005 Lieutenant Governor Catherine Baker Knoll and the Governor’s Advisory Council convened a panel of renowned experts in the field of paper conservation from the Library of Congress, the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA) in Philadelphia, the United States National Archives and Records Administration (NARA),and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Dr.John Havermans, an internationally recognized paper chemist in The Netherlands, joined the symposium and shared results of a research study completed at the National Archives of the Netherlands that involved the effects of the environment on paper. The symposium resulted in libraries, museums, archives, and scientists becoming more attentive to the paper conservation research integral to this project. Rare newspapers are housed in a specially designed and reinforced lower level area of the Forum Building. Pennsylvania possesses a proud legacy of newspaper publishing, beginning with printers such as Andrew Bradford, Samuel Keimer, and Benjamin Franklin. Pennsylvania is also a destination point for immigrants who have published daily and weekly newspapers in their native languages. Many of the newspapers in the State Library are the last known copies of these vignettes of life in the Commonwealth over the past three hundred years. Although many of these publications are now in microfilm format, it is important to preserve original copies. The library holds the oldest and most complete collection of known Pennsylvania newspapers.

The State Library’s transitionally rare materials include approximately ninety thousand volumes that record life and government in Pennsylvania, from the Civil War era through World War I. These were the years of the abolition movement; the war and reconstruction; the great waves of immigration; the captains of industry; the industrial age and the growth of the great railroads; the centennial of the nation; women’s suffrage; and many other important social movements. Pennsylvania coal and steel were especially important to the strength and international power of America that emerged in the age of imperialism.

In October 2004, Governor Edward G. Rendell announced the release of six million dollars in state capital funds for the pres- ervation project. Annual installments from the Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee support the Rare Collections Committee’s work. The Rare Collections Committee pursues other grants at state and federal levels and has been awarded a 2006 federal matching grant of $250,000 from Save America’s Treasures to conserve the General Assembly volumes. Another important grant source has been The Foundation for Enhancing Communities (TFEC),headquartered in Harrisburg. TFEC, a non-profit management organization for beneficiaries and
charitable trusts, provided a matching grant to help fund two rare books specialists to continue collection assessments at the State Library. These specialists evaluated items based on rarity, condition, market value, value to collectors, research value (especiallyto Pennsylvania history), and other unique factors such as origin, owner, and use. As a result, additional items have been moved from general stack areas into the rare books collection and into improved environmental conditions. Planned evaluation of the collection and conservation of rare items is a priority that will continue as funds become available.

Among the library’s priceless holdings is The Assembly Bible dating to 1739, a unique presentation copy specifically for swearing-in ceremonies. It is likely that when this volume of the General Assembly Collection was chosen by Speaker of the Assembly Isaac Norris 11, it was deemed available to not only Assembly members, but to other officers of state government. In the 1980s, this Bible was brought to the attention of then Speaker of the House, the late Matthew J. Ryan (1932-2003). With help of the Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee and its executive director, Ruthann Hubbert-Kemper, Speaker Ryan reintroduced The Assembly Bible for his 1987 swearing-in ceremony. In 2000, this volume was fully conserved, making the large, heavy volume structurally stable and safely transportable for official ceremonies.
The oldest book in the Commonwealth’s collection is a copy of the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle. An illustrated religious history of the world containing more than two thousand woodcuts, it was produced during the cradle years of printing. More than thirteen hundred of these volumes are known to exist in Latin and German
with fewer known copies printed in German. The copy owned by the State Library is printed in German.

Printing in Pennsylvania began soon after William Penn received his Charter from King Charles I1 in 1681. Religious literature dominated early printing and included the Sauer Bible, the first Bible printed in a European language in the colonies. Printed in Germantown in 1743, Christopher Sauer attempted to provide a Bible that anyone could read and afford, but German sectarians and German church leaders were not pleased. The Sauer Bible is significant to the history of printing in Pennsylvania and an important volume in the collection. Other early religious materials include items from the Ephrata Cloister that date from the 1730s and 1740s, such as music manuscripts written and drawn by the Brothers and Sisters, Guelden Aepffel, or Golden Apple, printed by the Brotherhood Press in 1745,and Bracht’s Der Blutige Schau-PlatzoderMartyrer Spiegel, known as The Martyr’s Mirror, printed in German from a sixteenth-century Dutch text.

The collection abounds with treasures, among them ephemera, or items whose lifespan is purposely short-lived. Pamphlets – both single examples and others bound in volumes – make up a sizeable portion of the collection. Considering that many pamphlets were usually discarded not long after printing and distribution, it’s understandable why these publications are so rare. Early newspapers include Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. The famous kite and key experiment appeared on page two of the October 19, 1752, edition as a small “how-to” article and not as a front page news story that many might expect. Report of the historic Boston Tea Party was an important story in the December 24, 1773, issue of the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser. Early and important maps include those drawn by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon to settle the boundary dispute among Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.

The descendents of Chief Justice of Pennsylvania Benjamin Chew (1722-1810), a member of the boundary commission that hired Mason and Dixon to survey the boundary, donated the map to the State Library.

Although John James Audubon (1785-1851) is most often associated with birds of early America, Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) is considered the “Father of American Ornithology.” One of the first naturalists to study wildlife in its natural habitat, he learned from botanist William Bartram and Philadelphia engraver Alexander Lawson. In 1798, Wilson befriended Lawson who taught him much about drawing. Wilson’s friendship with Bartram, beginning in 1802, prompted his interest in ornithology. Between 1808 and 1814, the Philadelphia firm of Bradford and Inskeep published Wilson’s nine-volume American Ornithology, of which the final volume was released one year after the ornithologist’s demise. Lawson had assisted with engraving Wilson’s detailed drawings of birds in the wild which were then colored by hand. Copies of the first-edition volumes are in the rare books collection, along with later editions in the State Library’s extensive collection.

The State Library’s rare, transitionally rare, and newspaper collections are, indeed, American treasures. They are of tremendous value to students of Pennsylvania and American history regarding the history of the Revolution, Civil War, German-Americans, Native Americans, and the abolitionist movement. There is depth in the history of government and political science, as well as English law and history. Religious studies and publications reflect the diverse culture of Pennsylvania. The arts are represented with the history of photography, art, music, architecture, and typography.

Much of what is known about the history of the rare books collection is credited to scholarship of Barbara Deibler. Until her death in 1991, Deibler painstakingly studied the primary documents and recorded proceedings of the General Assembly and all Assembly actions that affected the library, producing a documented history of the State Library from its earliest years. A resulting book was published posthumously. The important and historic collections of the State Library of Pennsylvania will now be properly housed. Respect for the vision of those Founding Fathers who collected these books and used them to forge both state and nation must also be passed to future generations. Not only did these individuals display courage and fortitude, they but possessed a strong realization and unrelenting dedication of the power of the written word.


Travel Tips

While a rainy day replenishes Pennsylvania’s many streams, lush forests, and gardens, that may be the perfect day for virtual travel on the Internet to Pennsylvania’s libraries, including the State Library of Pennsylvania, all from the comfort of your own home. With millions of titles spanning centuries, it’s still impossible to find every tittle scanned online – at least for now – but many libraries have placed a high priority on digitizing their holdings no longer restricted by copyright laws.

Libraries have long been key depositories for rate book and documents, and readers should consult their local libraries and institutions of higher education. They may possess interesting collections of scarce and rare titles not found elsewhere. While such collections often restrict access, the goal of many of these libraries is to provide some way that the public can view the irreplaceable contest of these collections without risking damage to books in delicate condition or, more commonly, may not be checked out of the library. Fortunately, more and more primary documents, and even entire books can be accessed in a virtual trip on the Internet.

Recent technological developments regarding rare book collections would likely have pleased Benjamin Franklin. For centuries, one of the obvious problems of such collections has been the inaccessibility of the volumes. You cannot easily run to your local library and obtain a copy of a book housed hundreds or thousands of miles away. Even if a researcher is fortunate enough to visit a historic institution, such as the State Library of Pennsylvania,libraries or archives may be forced to keep rare books under lock and key to prevent theft and limit environmental damage from light and humidity. Fortunately, some libraries keep reprints of important reference and literary classics on the shelf, but too often, someone seeking an obscure text a century or more out-of-print will be disappointed. With the advent of microfilm and microfiche, patrons can view images of some of these books. However, the images are often of poor, they lack color, and may be unavailable for libraries to order.

Today, however, a revolution is taking place regarding historic rare books,maps, and images. Universities and other libraries are digitizing publications,from cover to cover, of important books,newspapers and other printed archival material. Not only can you find catalog indexes of the entire holdings of libraries online, you can literally read books from cover to cover. On some Web sites, you can even search the entire book by keyword or phrase, something not possible when holding the physical book.


For Further Reading

Bliss, Robert Pratt. A History of the Pennsylvania State Library. Harrisburg: Telegraph Press, 1937.

Deibler, Barbara E. “A Valuable Collection of Neat Books Well Chosen”: The Pennsylvania Assembly Library. Harrisburg: Society for Political Enquiries and the Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee, 1994.

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin Center, Pa.: TheFranklin Library, 1979.

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

Miller, Randall M. and William Pencak. Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth. Harrisburg and University Park: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and Pennsylvania State UniversityPress, 2002.


Susan K. (Brua) Solarczyk, a native of Blair County, is executive assistant to the deputy secretary of education and commissioner for libraries. A graduate of Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, she received her Masters in Library Science from Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. Her professional experience includes teaching social studies and serving as a school librarian. The author was administrator of the Blair County Library System and consulting librarian at the Altoona Area Public Library and District Center. Prior to her current position, she served as the Keystone Fund facilities administrator for the Office of Commonwealth Libraries.
The author wishes to acknowledge Jane Smith Stewart, former archivist a t the State Library of Pennsylvania, for her professional support of the Rare Collections Library project and for her generous sharing of her paper conservation expertise.