Publication Date

October 1, 1997

I am writing to clarify several statements made in your September article concerning the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's (HSP) decision to become the best special collection library in the nation and its strategy to fulfill this mission.

  • HSP's strategic plan evolved over several years, not" discussions."
  • The History Center idea has not been "mooted," but remains our choice location to house HSP's entire art and artifact collection.
  • If the History Center is not realized, we will accept proposals from various local museums.

Your article also mentions Gary Nash, author of a recent commentary concerning HSP's move to transfer its art and artifacts collection, as having served on a focus group that was consulted about this new strategic plan. While Mr. Nash was a member of one of several focus groups comprised of historians and academics, these groups were gathered by HSP to provide insight on how best to serve their needs, not to address issues surrounding our strategic plan. Therefore, Mr. Nash's statement that our strategic plan was "contrary to their recommendations" has no basis in fact.

We know that there are a great many impassioned opinions, such as Mr. Nash's, on our decision. However, several key facts have seemingly been overlooked or not brought accurately to light.

HSP's mission since its founding in 1824 has been the acquisition and preservation of documentary materials and to serve as an historical repository for scholarly research. As a matter of fact, over the past three years, HSP has experienced a dramatic 60 percent surge in usage by individuals for research, challenging our staff, and our physical and financial resources. In 1994, the HSP Board agreed to tighten its focus and concentrate primarily on the library collection of manuscripts, graphics, and printed work due to its national importance (the manuscript collection is second only to the Library of Congress, while our genealogical materials comprise the third largest collection in the country).

As a result, HSP adopted a plan in which, over the next five years, it will transfer all but a core collection of its art and artifact holdings to either a collaborative History Center or other nonprofit institutions preferably in the Philadelphia area. The core collection remaining at HSP will represent the history of the society in regard to its development as an institution, in the changing nature of its mission and vision and in the development-of its collections.

Contrary to published reports, HSP is not in financial distress and is not raising money for operations by selling items in its collection. However, as a nonprofit organization, HSP has a legal obligation to receive "fair value" in return for the transfer of any items in its collection whenever possible. Proceeds from the sale of any items will be used primarily for the acquisition and preservation of documentary materials.

The upcoming building renovation, scheduled to begin with HSP's closing from November 28, 1997, to April 13, 1998, will be primarily financed through a number of carefully planned strategies, including contributions, grants, and tax-exempt financing. These renovations are not about physical appearance but the physical care and conservation of new and existing documentary materials. The renovations will provide for a 60 percent increase in storage space, enhanced security, easier staff accessibility to frequently paged books and graphics materials, greatly enhanced climate control, the installation of ultraviolet filtered lighting, and better fire protection.

During renovation, the other 10,000 items in the art and artifacts collection will be carefully protected in storage facilities at HSP and a securely controlled off-site location for approximately five years. Every item will be available for loan to exhibits and for research during this time. HSP will, in the meantime, continue to support efforts to secure funding for a History Center to ultimately house not only the society's art and artifacts collection, but those from other museums and institutions in the area to provide residents and visitors alike with an engaging and comprehensive interpretation of Philadelphia's history. The HSP art and artifacts collection is not large enough to tell the whole story of Philadelphia or to sustain itself as an independent museum. We wholeheartedly welcome local and regional museums and institutions to collaborate on a permanent solution to displaying our community's rich heritage.

Finally, and most importantly, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania is continuing to make every effort to preserve the materials of our community's heritage in the public domain and in Philadelphia with area museums and nonprofit institutions.

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