We here in Philadelphia take pride in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Ben Franking isn’t directly linked to our library system, but our city’s most famous father did get the ball rolling on free libraries in the early years of our country.
Recently, I had the great opportunity to meet with Dena Heilik, the Department Head of Philbrick Hall where are the good fiction books live, as we were planning our Lady Jane’s Salon (Philadelphia’s only regular romance author reading event—check it out). This Salon supports the Center for Literacy of Philadelphia, a very important organization in our area. After Dena and I went over some details of the space and timing, she nonchalantly asked, “Do you have a few minutes to see the rare books collection?”
I did, and, as a booklover, wouldn’t pass up this chance. She walked me through a gallery with cuneiforms, an original Shakespeare folio, and sketches by Beatrix Potter. My eyes were still spinning in my head when she asked if I had a few more moments.
I had long forgotten about my parking meter, which is a major no-no if you’ve ever parked in Philadelphia. We don’t have meter attendants, we have meter Gestapos. So I nodded. Dena introduced me to Karen, of the Rare Books Department, clearly the best tour guide who’s actually a librarian who ever lived.
We walked down the non-descript hall, passed some offices that could have been any type of government or industrial offices anywhere. Karen stopped us at the end, in front of two double fire doors.
A case to her left held a taxidermied raven. Turns out it was Charles Dickens’ crow. His pet raven. I missed the explanation on why the Victorians kept pet ravens, but they did. And this one was a biter, so Mrs. Dickens insisted it live in the barn where it ate more lead paint than was healthy. The good news is that it’s perfectly preserved from all its lead.
When Karen swiped her ID card and opened the fire doors, we were transported from the sterile hallway to a Georgian library. (I bet you think I don’t know when the time period of Georgian occurred. It was a long time ago, so there.) Apparently, William McIntire Elkins bequeathed his personal library to the public one. (Been waiting about 5 years to use the word bequeathed, so a double thanks to Mr. Elkins.) The estate took his will literally, and panel by intricately carved panel was removed from his mansion and installed in the library. You have to see it to believe it. And you can, because Monday-Saturday at 11:00 the Rare Books Department offers a free tour. But go on a day when Karen is there so she can show you Charles Dickens’ initials carved into his desk.