Research in the Philadelphia Area
Leslie Simon and Jefferson Moak, November 2005
From the Annual Meeting 2006 column of the November 2005 Perspectives
Directing AHA members to historical research sources in Philadelphia is rather like bringing coals to Newcastle (which might not be a bad idea in January). Philadelphians long labored under the illusion that there was "no history in Philadelphia after 1800," 1800 being the year in which the federal government moved to the District of Columbia. Indeed, our tourist literature tends to highlight the Revolutionary and Federal periods of the city's history to the detriment of the last 200 years. In retrospect, Philadelphia was very fortunate not to become the nation's permanent capital, for it allowed the city to grow with a multitude of interests instead of being dominated by the federal bureaucracy.
There is an overwhelming wealth of historical repositories, archives, museums, universities, and libraries in Philadelphia and throughout the Delaware Valley that highlight innumerable aspects of local and American history. The histories of science, business, art, medicine, technology, architecture, literature, and many other subjects may be found in the diverse collections in the region. To highlight, or even mention, all of these vast resources would more than fill this magazine.
To simplify matters (and with apologies to those resources omitted) for those not familiar with the depth and range of resources, or for those looking for something different, here are some starting places.
The two most comprehensive are The Directory of Archival and Manuscript Repositories in the Delaware Valley, prepared by the Delaware Valley Archivists Group (DVAG), and the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL) web site (www.pacscl.org).
The directory, in its third edition, provides a collection summary and access and contact information for each of 134 repositories in Delaware, southern New Jersey, and southeastern Pennsylvania. Repositories are indexed by type and subject (art and architecture, business, industry and technology, communications, educational institution, ethnic heritage, government, historical society, labor, library, medical and health care, military, museum, religious organization, science and technology, social service organization) as well as municipality. The directory is not on the Internet, but copies can be ordered by writing to DVAG, c/o Nancy Taylor, Presbyterian Historical Society, 425 Lombard Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147.
PACSCL is a cooperative group of 28 libraries and archives: the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia; the American Philosophical Society; the Athenaeum of Philadelphia; Bryn Mawr College; the Chemical Heritage Foundation; the College of Physicians of Philadelphia; the Free Library of Philadelphia; the Hagley Museum and Library; Haverford College; the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; the Library Company of Philadelphia; the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia; the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society; the Presbyterian Historical Society; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; Rosenbach Museum and Library; St. Charles Borromeo Seminary; Swarthmore College; Temple University; the University of Delaware; the University of Pennsylvania; Villanova University; the Wagner Free Institute of Science; and Winterthur Museum, Garden, & Library. Most of these organizations are included in the DVAG directory. The PACSCL web site is particularly useful in providing links to member institutions' web sites and online catalogues, as well as an online union catalogue for six institutions.
Major historical collections may be found in the following institutions in Philadelphia. Visit their web sites for more detailed information.
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, at 1300 Locust Street in Philadelphia (www.hsp.org), is one of the oldest historical societies in America. Founded in 1824, it holds many treasures of local and American importance. With over 600,000 volumes and 19 million manuscripts, it presents a breadth of information to any researcher.
Sitting next to the Historical Society at 1314 Locust Street is the Library Company of Philadelphia (www.librarycompany.org), founded in part by Benjamin Franklin and his friends in 1731. The library company devotes itself to the preservation of American culture.
Another of Franklin's gifts to Philadelphia is the American Philosophical Society (www.amphilsoc.org), located at 5th and Library Streets across from Independence Square. Founded in 1745, it is a national center for research into the history of the sciences, medicine, and technology.
Philadelphia and many of the surrounding counties host archives representing all levels of government. The National Archives and Records Administration, Mid-Atlantic Region, (www.archives.gov/midatlantic), located on the north side of the 900 block of Chestnut Street, administers over 60,000 cubic feet of records of federal activities, from 1789 through the present. The records are stored in Philadelphia and throughout the mid-Atlantic region: Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.
The City Archives of Philadelphia (www.phila.gov/phils/carchive.htm) is located at 3101 Market Street, on the Drexel University campus and next to the University of Pennsylvania. It holds approximately 20,000 cubic feet of records relating to the history of the city and county of Philadelphia from 1683 to the present. In neighboring Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, information relating to that county since its inception in 1784 may be found in the county archives at 1880 Markley Street in Norristown, PA (www.montcopa.org/countyoffices/availrecords.htm) or in the Montgomery County Historical Society (www.hsmcpa.org) just a few blocks away. Similarly, in Chester County, another of the original counties of Pennsylvania, you can visit the Chester County Archives (dsf.chesco.org/archives) or the Chester County Historical Society (www.chestercohistorical.org). The Camden County Historical Society (www.cchsnj.com) houses records and research tools for southern New Jersey, dating from the later 17th century through mid-20th century. Local historical societies, such as those of Haddonfield, New Jersey (www.historicalsocietyofhaddonfield.org), Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania (www.lowermerionhistory.org) and Chestnut Hill, New Jersey (www.chhist.org/collections) maintain invaluable collections.
There are also many smaller gems located in the region: The collections of the Urban Archives at Temple University, 1210 Berks Street, Philadelphia (www.library.temple.edu/collections/urbana), concentrate on the social history of Philadelphia. The Wagner Free Institute of Science, 1700 W. Montgomery Street, Philadelphia (www.pacscl.org/wagner) is a little-known resource dedicated to the history of science and is located near the Temple University campus.
Special collections at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1900 Vine Street (www.library.phila.gov/about) include the map collection, one of the largest cartographic collections on the East Coast with over 130,000 current and historical maps, the automobile reference collection, the theatre collection, the Fleisher Music Library, the children's book collection, and the rare book department.
Don't overlook the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware (www.hagley.lib.de.us), for it contains records of many Philadelphia and Delaware Valley businesses and institutions, among them canal and railroad companies, including those of the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads.
Use the web links available from PASCAL, the directory, and those given in this article to explore the wealth of resources available to historians with many interests when you visit Philadelphia in January.
—Leslie Simon, a member of the Local Arrangements Committee, is the archives director of the mid-Atlantic branch of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
—Jefferson Moak is archivist at NARA's mid-Atlantic branch.