Public permitted to peruse state library’s rare books
September 4, 2016 12:00 AM
Portrait of early Pennsylvania Indian chief No-Way-Ke-Sug-GA, from a book in the State Library of Pennsylvania entitled "History of the Indian Tribes of North America, with biographical sketches and anecdotes of the principal chiefs" authored by Thomas McKenney and dated 1842.
The State Library of Pennsylvania rare collection reading room. It is decorated with images from the life of Ben Franklin.
Shelves of rare books in the state library.
A vault in the state library.
A vault in the state library.
The statutes at large from Magna Charta to the seventh year of King George the Second.
Civil war diaries in the library.
By Karen Langley / Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG — Most books in the State Library of Pennsylvania sit available on the shelves, when they have not been borrowed by a reader.
But other volumes — a book from 1493, prints from the shop of Benjamin Franklin, the debut issue of Spider-Man — are locked away in vaults, where they are kept in the dark at around 45 degrees , accessible to only a few people who have a fingerprint programmed to open the doors.
They are part of the rare collections library, a set of about 20,000 items that merit special protection. Among these are the English statutes at large, ordered in 1745 by the Pennsylvania Assembly, in what the state library considers its founding, as well as Pennsylvania imprints, historical pamphlets and other rarities. As the years passed, Pennsylvania hosted the signing of the Declaration of Independence and other events that were critical to the history of the United States, and the library grew to contain documents of greater than local interest.
“When you have in the newspapers, or in the case of the Assembly Collection, the materials that were used to write the Constitution and all the other documents for the United States,” said Bill Minter, senior book conservator for the university libraries of Penn State University, “... that information is valuable for the long-term understanding of the history of this country, as well as the state.”
While the state library takes care to preserve the rare volumes, it also makes most of them available for the public to view, though at least a day is needed to retrieve a book and allow it to warm up enough to be handled.
Since the library’s founding in the mid-18th century, its keepers have had to protect the holdings from threats of war. The collections were moved from Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War and out of Harrisburg during the Civil War. Though they have been secure from potential battle for years, it was only a few decades ago that many of the library’s rare items were provided with a particular degree of protection.
“Up until the 1970s, many of the books that are in the vaults were on our stacks,” said Alice Lubrecht, director of the state library. “We went shopping for our rare collections essentially on the stacks, because they just were here.”
Among the notable items is a map showing the positions of the armies at Gettysburg, along with the diary of George Randolph Snowden, who was present at the battle. His writing, on pages with the headings “Wednesday, July 1, 1863” and “Thursday, July 2, 1863,” is so tiny that it is difficult to read, except for the larger titles: “Emittsburg to Gettysburg and the Battle” and “The Battle of Gettysburg.”
There is a copy of the drawings of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, showing the line they marked between Maryland and Pennsylvania.
The oldest volume in the collection is the “Liber Chronicarum,” a history of the world published in 1493.
There are also editions of Benjamin Franklin’s newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. A supplement printed on the evening of Dec. 24, 1773, alerts readers in Philadelphia to the events of the Boston Tea Party eight days earlier. The library uses the edition to teach schoolchildren how long it took for news to travel in those days.
“These early newspapers, like the Pennsylvania Gazette especially, conveyed an awful lot of information to the colonists about the unrest that was going on in the country for a long period of time,” said Michael Dabrishus, assistant university librarian at the University of Pittsburgh. “So the preservation of those original newspapers, even though they have been digitized, continues to be important.”
Another highlight is the 1962 comic book Amazing Fantasy #15, whose cover reads: “Introducing Spider Man.” Spider-Man artist Stephen Ditko, a native of Johnstown, donated the book, along with other items, including artwork and storyboards from Spider-Man and other series, Ms. Lubrecht said.
Spider-Man arrived on the comics scene shortly after Marvel began bringing back superheroes, and he quickly became the company’s most popular character, said Sean Howe, author of the book “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.” A near-mint copy of the debut book sold at auction in February for $454,100, according to Heritage Auctions.
Items in the rare collections are housed in one of three vaults: one for materials from before 1870, mostly of paper made from rags; another for pamphlet and newspaper volumes; and a third for rare items from after 1870.
In addition to being cooled to around 45 degrees, humidity is controlled, and air filters are used to remove mold spores and other matter. The rooms are kept in darkness, except when there is a visitor, in which case particular lights are used.
As a security measure, staff members who are able to open the doors to the vaults cannot change the records of what is in the collection, ensuring that a single rogue employee could not make all signs of a rare item disappear.
Some books are determined to be rare because they have survived for so long, while others are checked against a worldwide catalog to see how many libraries own a copy.
“If only ten own it, I better try to figure out how to preserve that copy, because the chances are those will be it,” Ms. Lubrecht said. “They’re not going to print another one of these volumes.”
Karen Langley: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
email@example.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.