I’ll admit that I’m a book geek – but the Central Branch of The Free Library of Philadelphia is such a cool place that anyone who enjoys books, history, art, or famous people will enjoy the Rare Book Department. You can visit on your own anytime the library is open, or take a tour each day at 11:00 (which lets you get up close to important milestones in the history of books: a Book of the Dead papyrus, a page from a Gutenberg Bible, an illuminated manuscript, etc.). Every time we bring friends or family to Philly, this is one of our stops. The exhibits rotate, but they always have examples from their main collections:
These cuneiform tablets from Ancient Sumer are over 4,000 years old. Although most of these tablets deal with boring administrative stuff, the writing was the world’s first written language. Some of these clay tablets were enclosed in clay envelopes to safeguard the information.
Another favorite are the Medieval illuminated manuscripts. These prayer books were copied on parchment (sheep, calf or goat skin) and hand illustrated with gold leaf and lapis lazuli. This one, from the 1400’s illustrates the legend of Three Living and Three Dead.
In addition to writing children’s books, Beatrix Potter was also an illustrator:
Edgar Allen Poe, who lived in Philadelphia for 6 years, had incredibly neat handwriting:
Charles Dickens’s handwriting was messy:
Always on display is “Grip,” the raven. Grip was a beloved pet of Dickens. The author inserted the blabbing raven as a character in his 1841 mystery novel, Barnaby Rudge. We know that Poe reviewed Barnaby Rudge and commented on the use of the talking raven, feeling the bird should have loomed larger in the plot. Literary experts surmise that the talking raven of Barnaby Rudge inspired Poe’s most famous poem, The Raven, published in 1845 (the library has a handwritten copy of the poem, although it is not always on display).
When Grip died in 1841, Dickens had the bird mounted. After Dickens death, Grip was sold at auction. The mounted raven was eventually purchased by Philadelphia’s Richard Gimbel, a collector of all things Poe. In 1971, Gimbel’s Poe collection was donated to the Free Library, where Grip holds a place of honor in the Rare Book Department. (http://www.ushistory.org/oddities/grip)