The Rare Book Department's 75th Anniversary Event Series

By Joe S. RSS Wed, December 20, 2023

2024 marks the 75th Anniversary of the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Since its inception in 1949, Rare Books has prided itself on providing a warm and welcoming environment and open access to all, delivering world-class exhibitions, eclectic displays, engaging programs, and free daily tours at 11 a.m. — no reservations required. More inquisitive folks can make appointments to view materials. 

To celebrate its anniversary throughout 2024, the Rare Book Department will offer extended evening hours on the first Wednesday of every month, which will include a free behind-the-scenes, sneak-peek program for interested visitors from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Joseph Shemtov is the Special Collections Coordinator in the Rare Book Department. In this interview, I asked Joseph about the Rare Book Department, based on his 15 years of experience working there.

What should folks know about the department?

Our world-class collections! But even if you’re not crazy about books or paintings, we have animals — albeit dead and stuffed — such as Charles Dickens’s pet bird, Grip. This bird (or more precisely, the literary character that Dickens created based on his pet for his book Barnaby Rudge) inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write his poem "The Raven." The Rare Book Department owns not only the bird but the only remaining and complete copy of the poem in existence, written by Poe himself.

What makes the Rare Book Department unique?

Access to collections! As a Rare Book Department in a public library, we pride ourselves on being free of charge. This means that the programs we offer are free and open to all, which is mostly why our donors gave us their collections to share with as many folks as possible.

How does a rare book department stay relevant in today’s world?

This is our biggest challenge. First, we begin by making our collections available and easy to find. Our materials are cataloged and searchable through online catalogs, digital collections, and online finding aids. We work collaboratively with other cultural organizations and apply for grants that enable us to digitize entire collections which otherwise would not be possible. The Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis Project and Manuscripts of the Muslim World allowed us to digitize our entire medieval and Islamic collections. We also brainstorm to create thoughtful and diverse exhibitions that we hope resonate with and appeal to community members. Engaging audiences of all ages is equally important. For example, as a tie-in to The Art and Influence of John Dowell exhibition, we offer free printmaking classes for everyone. We think remote programs are essential for folks who cannot physically attend the library so we offer podcasts, blog posts, and online exhibitions for folks to connect remotely. Last but not least, we work collaboratively with schools, offering in-house programs, as well as outbound programs. Traveling Treasures, for example, travels to schools and other institutions, teaching participants of all ages about special collections and why they are important.

Is there a program you feel most proud of?

While each staff member has a personal favorite, mine is In the Path of Islam. This community-driven project was mostly about the Free Library of Philadelphia building relationships with Philadelphians who have been historically overlooked and marginalized.

Join the Rare Book Department on the first Wednesday of every month from 6:30–7:30 p.m. in 2024 for special programs to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the department.

Have a question for Free Library staff? Please submit it to our Ask a Librarian page and receive a response within two business days.

Leave this field empty

Add a Comment to The Rare Book Department's 75th Anniversary Event Series

Email is kept private and will not be displayed publicly
Comment must be less than 3000 characters