A Hands-On Tour of The Rosenbach

With over 400,000 rare books, manuscripts, and art objects, the Rosenbach Museum contains the treasured collections of Philip Rosenbach and his younger brother A. S. W. Rosenbach. Following his brother’s death in 1953, the younger Rosenbach created the space in 1954 as a way to share both of their personal book and manuscript collections, as well as their knowledge, with the public.

The Rosenbach became a subsidiary of the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation in 2013, but maintains its own board and operates separately from the public library system. At its core, the Rosenbach aims to inspire curiosity by engaging audiences with their exhibits and collections. 

Before the Hands-On Tour

One of the first things I stumbled across during my visit to the Rosenbach was an exhibit entitled, Selections From Our Collections, which contained books and artifacts that were published as far back as the 16th century. In particular, I was drawn to the work of the prolific Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, who is commonly regarded as the greatest Spanish author in history. His novel, El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, (which is translated as The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote) caught my attention because of the exhibit’s description, which detailed how the material used to make a book can reveal what the makers thought about their work and how they wanted the audience to read the text.

With this in mind, I also enjoyed learning about another book in the display that described the Regiment of Foot of the Army of Great Britain. Looking at the book itself revealed it went through warfare. The book contained the record of orders received by Captain William Eyre’s infantry company during the Braddock campaign of the French and Indian War. Visiting this part of the Rosenbach was a great way to learn more about the collections themselves before the Hands-On Tour began.  

Judging Books by Their Covers

As one of the Rosenbach’s most popular features, the Hands-On Tour allowed visitors to experience first-hand some of its finest collections. When I toured on July 26, I had the chance to experience their Book Arts tour, which involved looking at books from a variety of eras and analyzing how their aesthetics make them unique. The tour also focused on examining illustrations, with a particular emphasis on how the art informed the way people should read and view books. To ensure proper sanitation, visitors were asked to wash their hands before the tour to help preserve the books for as long as possible. 

At the beginning of the tour, we were taken up to the to third floor of the Rosenbach, which was known as the Historic Library. Our tour guide, Collections Engagement Manager Dr. Alexander L. Ames, informed our group that the Rosenbach offers a unique experience through the authenticity of the exhibits. As a result, he emphasized how important it was for visitors to hold the books and manuscripts with care, since any mishandling could lead to the pages falling apart. 

When the tour began, we were shown a variety of texts, such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (published in 1440) and John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (published during the first half of the 15th Century). The Canterbury Tales had a noticeably thick texture due to it being printed on parchment. Being able to touch the material itself made the experience stand out because, when I felt carefully, I could tell whether the paper was the skin or hair of the animal. I also enjoyed looking at Confessio Amantis, which was printed on parchment. This book told the story of a lovesick man wandering through a forest. 

The Rosenbach’s main goal is to protect these rare printed materials for the next millennium, since this will help to preserve the stories themselves for generations to come. 

More To Do at The Rosenbach

Located at 2008-2010 Delancey Street, the Rosenbach offers Hands-On Tours for kids as well as adults. All programs are listed on the museum's event calendar, which you can find by clicking here. Furthermore, the Rosenbach runs its own blog known as The Rosenblog. Many posts revolve around new and returning exhibits, with even the occasional “Happy Birthday” post for well-known authors. Finally, it has an ongoing exhibit known as Off the Shelf… Game On!, which allows people to test their knowledge about the artifacts on display. 


Article written by Daniel Ortiz on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association