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The Historical Society of Pennsylvania


“he withdrew his hand from mine and felt his own pulse. I saw his countenance change. I spoke to Dr. Craik, who sat by the fire; he came to the bedside. The general’s hand fell from his wrist. I took it in mine and put it in my bosom. Dr. Craik put his hands over his eyes and he expired without a struggle or a sigh.

“While we were fixed in silent grief, Mrs. Washington (who was sitting at the foot of the bed) asked with a firm and collected voice, ‘Is he gone?’ I could not speak, but held up my hand as a signal that he was no more. ‘Tis well,’ said she in the same voice, ‘all is now over, I shall soon follow him. I have no more trials to pass through!’ “

The preceding words may sound like a chapter from a novel, but they are much more important than that. They are the words of Tobias Lear, General George Washington’s private secretary, describing the General’s death. The notebook in which this is written is only one in a marvel of founding documents for the United States that form part of the archive of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Mr. Lear’s little notebook shares cabinet space with the very first draft of the United States Constitution, with one of three handwritten copies of the words to the Star Spangled Banner signed by Francis Scott Key, and maybe most important of all, with a logbook that belonged to a man named William Still.

Mary Tasillo, conservation assistant

Still, a free African American living in Philadelphia and a member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. His logbook contains detailed descriptions of the slaves he assisted in escaping and making their way to Canada. Each entry contains the name the slave gave him, then the name Still used in renaming each as a part of a new identity, followed by a physical description of the person, then by the name of the slave owner, the location of the farm or plantation where the slave had been living, and a description of what, exactly, caused the slave to run the risk of trying to flee to a better life, often leaving family members behind.

These are just the biggest stars in the firmament of documents that the Historical Society owns, a few of its 21 million items. Of those, 560,000 are books; 312,000 are maps, prints, and photographs; the remainder is archival material in the form of everything from the first draft of the U.S. Constitution already mentioned through Colonial-era newspapers to family papers from locally prominent or historically important families. Even cookbooks are part of this collection, as evidenced by the Society’s recent facsimile publication of a Civil War-era cookbook compiled by Ellen Emlen.

Besides a repository for all of these books and papers, the Society is a private research library, founded in 1824, which is open and accessible to the public. But, as Lee Arnold, Senior Director of the Library and Collections, says, “You have to behave yourself.”

If you’re interested in doing research on your family, an important local building, or your township as a whole and you are a member of the Society, you may come in when the library is open and there is no charge. If you’re not a member, there is a charge of $8 for each visit.

You must check your coat, your bag, everything but writing materials (no pens, only pencils), and a laptop. If you want to bring a camera to photograph something, permission is needed in advance. NO devices that play music are permitted. The Society provides lockers for your bag and a coat rack for winter outerwear. There are people on duty at the desk in the catalog room to assist you. You hand in your written request to see items from the stacks or to have items photocopied at a desk in the reading room.

Lee Arnold, senior director of the library and collections

A large room adjacent to the reading room contains local histories for Philadelphia, southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, southern New Jersey, and eastern Maryland. These histories go all the way back to the beginning of the white man’s settlements in the area, so that anyone wanting to research local or family history has a good place to begin. It may seem daunting but there are helpful staff members to assist you.

Last year 4,500 people visited the library in person, the website enjoyed 538,500 visits, and 3,800 more availed themselves of the library’s reference-by-mail services. The society is in the process of digitizing its collection, having so far completed 50,000 documents, which are now available online. The size of the digitized collection is expected to double as the staff adds sections of the ethnic and immigrant collections. These documents are available 24 hours a day and are even available on your BlackBerry or iPhone.

Each year HSP organizes two rare-document display days that are open and free to the public. Staff is on hand to explain the documents and their provenance. One of the days in 2011 was devoted to six versions of the U.S. Constitution, including the earliest surviving draft handwritten by delegate James Wilson. That very first version begins: “We the People of the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island – rather than – We the People of the United States ” On the anniversary of the start of the Civil War, HSP put on display letters from both Confederate and Union generals, issues of the newspaper Fourney’s War Press, diaries, and posters. The display days schedule is posted on: www.hsp.org

Over time, many collections were bequeathed to the HSP; in 2002 the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies was merged into the society. The Institute’s main focus was immigrant groups and it remains a large and distinctive resource for those trying to find out more about first-generation family members or doing research on various immigrant groups. Other important additions include the autograph collections of Simon Gratz and Ferdinand Dreer, which include rarities like a letter written by Galileo, papers on the Macao-China trade which are a part of the Sword family papers, and an ancient Persian manuscript acquired as part of the Samuel G. Perkins collection.

The society collects not just those documents relating to the history of the region but important pieces that belonged to area residents. Thus, the collection becomes a resource for history scholars world-wide.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania is a private research library, so it receives no government support. Annual donations from corporations, banks, local non-profits like the Pew Charitable Trust and the William Penn Foundation, and private citizens form the bulk of its funding. Staff members apply for grants to cover specific needs like conservation and preservation but no regular income is derived from any government source.

The society’s staff members have become resourceful in raising money to assist in various aspects of the society’s mission. A good example is the program “Adopt-a-collection.” One of the stalwarts of the adoption program is the Abington Junior High School History Club. Teacher Shaun Little, who founded the club with the idea that “we could be doing a lot more to make history interesting to kids,” says he tries to incorporate fun activities with the idea of giving back to the community. “The club is four years old and we have been giving to the Adopt-a-collection at the society all four years,” Little says, adding that now the club has 150 kids as members and raises enough money so that the donation this year was split between the Historical Society and the USO.

Little says on trips there, “We got to see how they conserve documents and where and how they store them, all the backstage stuff.”

If seeing an early version of the U.S. Constitution or an original copy of the Star Spangled Banner by its author is something you think would enhance your visit to Philadelphia’s historic district, check with the Society’s website to see when an opportunity might be there. Seeing the real thing is something you don’t soon forget.

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