Rare Books Showcase at the Parkway Central Library

The Wawa Welcome America Festival kicked off on June 29, 2019, with a variety of events for all to enjoy. Some of the highlighted activities included free concerts, eating some of Philadelphia’s culinary classics, and free visits to museums across the city. In particular, the Free Library of Philadelphia opened its doors so that festival-goers could get a first-hand look at the rare books the library has to offer.

The Free Library's Parkway Central location, 1901 Vine Street, on Logan Square has been serving Philadelphia residents since 1927, and is a member of Global Philadelphia Association. This location is the 13th largest public library in the United States and is not part of a city agency or a non-profit organization. The Free Library of Philadelphia was established in 1891 by the efforts of Dr. William Pepper, the then-provost of the University of Pennsylvania. The main mission of the Library is “to advance literacy, guide learning, and inspire curiosity.” 

The 2019 Wawa Welcome America Festival held the Rare Book Showcase on the third floor of the Parkway Central Library. There were a variety of books on display, many of which were originally published back in the 17th century.

One of the rare books on display was "The Goodness of Saint Rocque by Alice Dunbar," released in 1899 by New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. This was the first collection of short stories by an African-American woman to be published by a major national press. Another book on display was "Rachel" by Angelina Weld Grimke, released in 1920 by Boston: The Cornhill Company. This play is Grimke’s best-known work and is centered around a young African-American woman who decides to avoid motherhood rather than have children, who could be subject to lynching and other racial crimes. It was written as a way for people to boycott the 1915 film "Birth of a Nation," America’s controversial first feature-length motion picture that’s now regarded as one of the most offensive films ever made.

In addition to the collection of rare books being showcased, the library also displayed different types of Cuneiform, a script the Sumerian civilization developed over 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). To do this, sulks were pressed into a clay tablet to produce these scripts. Some of these forms originated from Umma, and Adab. Umma was an ancient city in Sumer, and it has been suggested by researchers that it was located at Umm al-Aqarib, or maybe even the name of both cities. Adab, also known as Udab, was a Sumerian city between Telloh and Nippur that was populated from around 2900-2350 BCE. It was located at the site of modern-day Bismaya.

Visitors to the exhibit can also explore another room known as The Elkins Library, which was originally owned by William M. Elkins in Whitemarsh Township, Pennsylvania. Everything in the room is original, which means that everything shown in the room is 100% authentic. Furthermore, the room features photographs of the outside of Elkins’ house to help visitors see what it was like to actually be inside his library. However, the only opportunity to visit The Elkins Library is during the 11:00 a.m. rare books tour.

When asked if there was a possibility of renting one of their rare books, the librarians said the rental policies are incredibly strict, which is common with libraries all over. They said that they mainly allow it for researchers who want access to the books. Researchers must sign documents and review specific instructions on how to take proper care of these historical books.

Anyone interested in seeing the rare books can head to the third floor of the Parkway Central Library for themselves. This family-friendly exhibit is open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (closed on Saturday from 1:00 p.m. - 2:00 p.m.), with tours of the General Collection beginning at 11:00 a.m.

Click here for more information about the exhibit and tour details.


Article written by Daniel Ortiz on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association.