Cheesesteaks and Brownstones: Manuscript Viewings in Philadelphia and NYC

Having just returned from a research trip to the States, I thought that I would give my blog a kick, as it has gone into hibernation of late. Jet-lag and a cold prevent me from tackling my impending deadlines, so I thought that I’d take time to be more creative. I hope that peripatetic manuscript scholars will appreciate this post, and other readers might enjoy the pretty pictures.


      My first stop in America was the wonderful city of Philadelphia, where I was booked in for a few days of manuscript viewing at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania.


The University of Pennsylvania campus

One thing that struck me as I entered the library was the personal treatment that I received from the librarians and desk staff. I was greeted by Library Specialist John Pollack, who went out of his way to make me feel welcome – something that I appreciated on my first day of research, since I was entirely new to the city and library. He even invited me to a ‘Material Texts’ workshop by UPenn graduate student Alan Niles, on seventeenth century ‘family albums’, which turned out to be fascinating. The special collections room itself is located on the sixth floor of the main campus library (the Van Pelt-Dietrich library) and is recently refurbished with comfortable furniture and great lighting, making a lovely working space.


University of Pennsylvania campus library

       The special collections reception desk staff are warm and friendly, which was a nice surprise to a very ‘English’, slightly jet-lagged, researcher such as myself. The library allows photographs, which was helpful, reducing the stress of observing and noting everything on a short research visit. Though it is possible to locate the medieval material using various catalogues, the Digital Scriptorium website is an invaluable and easy-to-use finding tool. By navigating into the ‘Advanced Search’ page and choosing ‘Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania’ under location, you can see their extensive holdings. As a visiting reader, you can register and order books using the Aeon system. However, I took the time to email the librarian personally in addition, which is always important to do if you are traveling a long way to look at books.

        Philadelphia itself is a great city to be in as a researcher, providing lots of places to relax after a long day of manuscript study. It’s a very walkable place, and I was able to stroll to and from the library from my B&B. I’d recommend planning a research trip to Philly in the spring, as the evenings are lengthening and there are fewer (other) tourists around than in summer. Also, very importantly, there is a multitude of wonderful places to eat in Philadelphia – did I mention the Philly Cheesesteaks?

New York

        Columbia University

       My first port of call in New York was the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University.

I presented the required documentation to the main reception desk (remember to bring your government ID to these libraries!) and headed up to the top floor of the Butler Library. I was greeted in person by medieval and Renaissance specialist Consuelo Dutschke, who handed me folders full of photocopies of bibliographical material relating to each manuscript that I was viewing. This has never happened to me before, and it was so useful to see scans of previously published material on each item before looking at the manuscript itself. Once again, the room is modern and comfortable, and a pleasure to work in, and the medieval collections can be navigated easily on Digital Scriptorium. As a side note, there are rolling exhibitions in the entrance hallway to special collections, and as a result I learned a lot about twentieth century Harlem.

      An especial boon for the hungry and tired scholar is the wealth of great food and drink outlets in the Columbia University vicinity. Located in Upper Manhattan, the main campus has a Hungarian pastry shop right on its doorstep. It’s chock-full of undergraduates talking deadlines and philosophy through dusky lighting. And…especially relevant to manuscript scholars, I feel… there’s Oren’s Daily Roast, serving some of the best coffee I tasted during my visit:


Refreshment for the soul

        The Morgan Library

This institution began as the private library of banker and collector Pierpont Morgan (d.1913), and researchers can still see his original manuscript library and stunning room for rare printed books:


Mr Morgan’s East Room. Photo courtesy of the Morgan Library:

If you wish to see any of the Morgan Library’s collections, it is important that you email ahead and make an appointment. The manuscript handling procedures at the Morgan Library are different from other libraries. For example, the librarians will set out the book, and adjust the book rest, and researchers are not allowed to carry books around at all. After so many days as a library tourist, I found remembering each library’s policies rather confusing. However, though the Morgan’s procedures are strict, the staff were helpful and took time to explain how it all worked. Also, once again, I was allowed to take photographs. Finishing up my research an hour early, I was delighted to be told that I could have a wonder through the public areas. After viewing Pierpont Morgan’s collections, it was amazing to be able to see the spaces in which he kept his books, including the office of librarian Belle Da Costa Greene and his bank-like manuscript vault.


The Morgan Library

        The New York Academy of Medicine

        My trip was one of contrasts, and there could not have been more of a contrast between the opulent Morgan Library in central Manhattan with its natural light and newly-renovated interiors and the NYAM on ‘Museum Mile’ in East Harlem, with its 1920s architecture and relaxed low-level lighting.

I was the only reader there, and was made very welcome by the librarian. The library’s online catalogue is not very detailed, so I was pointed to Di Ricci’s Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada (I believe that this collection is not Digital Scriptorium). However, though the library does hold medieval manuscripts (including a Middle English Guy de Chauliac), the NYAM’s strengths lie in its extensive medical incunabla collection. I found the library to be a peaceful haven of tranquility after pushing my way through cenrtal Manhattan earlier that day. The librarian made special arrangements so that I could squeeze a few more hours of research into my day, which was much appreciated. She even made recommendations for lunch spots!

        Best of all, after day of scrutinising centuries-old books, I was able to take a walk in the early evening sun in Central Park, just across the road from the library. I would highly recommend seeking out smaller collections such as the NYAM – it is a rewarding and often memorable experience.


Not a bad commute after a day viewing rare books

          In the course of my visit to the USA, I also gave one invited talk (at Rutgers University, to a friendly group of palaeography scholars), met up with a co-author with whom I’ve hitherto corresponded using email, caught up with a colleague and mentor for dinner, and participated a reading group. So, I paid appropriate attention to down-time, ensuring that I included lots of evening strolls and good food. A highlight was spending time walking around Brooklyn looking at its brownstone buildings, hence the title of this post. Regardless, coming home to sort out my notes and photographs, and organise my thoughts feels like something of a holiday.

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