This New Tour Lets You Get Up Close and Personal With the Free Library’s Rare Book Collection

The Central Branch has launched “Hands-On History,” giving better access to one of Philly’s best hidden gems.

free library rare book collection

Go experience the Free Library rare book collection. Photograph by Claudia Gavin

At some point in your life, you’ve probably read at least a few Charles Dickens novels — even if only under duress in middle school. Oliver Twist. A Tale of Two Cities. Ebenezer Scrooge and his holiday haunters in A Christmas Carol. But you probably didn’t know that some of the author’s original manuscripts and illustrations, and even the desk at which he wrote, are right here in Philly.

The Central Branch of the Free Library has one of the most diverse collections of rare books of any public library in the country. There are thousands of medieval manuscripts, tablets from 5,000 years ago, tens of thousands of early American children’s books, and original works from Edgar Allan Poe and Beatrix Potter, to name a few. The public has long been able to make appointments for research projects, arrange group visits, or join one of the free guided tours, but earlier this year, the library staff jumped on the programming bandwagon and launched “Hands-On History,” where monthly themes (like the evolution of the detective story) get people interacting with the collection. (Not to mention just being in the third-floor rare books department of the 1927 building is something worth experiencing.)

And on the 14th of December, Dickens fans can get in the holiday spirit with an up-close and personal look at the department’s extensive collection. Be sure to keep an eye out for the writer’s taxidermied pet raven, Grip. As the story goes, Dickens’s wife banished the bird to the family’s barn, where Grip ate some lead paint chips and died, only to be replaced by another raven, also named Grip. Hey, Dickens was an eccentric.

Now, if you’re thinking, Wait, wasn’t it Edgar Allan Poe who had a thing for ravens?, it turns out that Poe wrote a review of a Dickens novel in which Grip appears (notably with the ability to speak), thus likely stumbling upon his inspiration for his poem “The Raven.”

And don’t assume you’ll be perusing the papers of Dickens while wearing sterile gloves. “Gloves really decrease your tactile sensitivity,” notes Caitlin Goodman, curator of the rare books department. “And we want our patrons to interact. We want them to engage and feel empowered. After all, this is a public library, so this is their collection.”

Published as “What’s Old Is New” in the December 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.