Visuals have long been an interest of the Library Company of Philadelphia and have been collected along with books throughout our history. In 1733, for example, the library’s London book agent sent “a Print of the Orrey” to the young institution. Thirteen years later in 1746, the widow of the Library Company’s first secretary Joseph Breintnall donated two volumes of leaf prints compiled by her husband.

In the 1780s, the Library Company acquired the Pierre Eugène Du Simitière Collection which along with pamphlets, broadsides, manuscripts, and books included artwork by Du Simitière himself as well as graphics he collected from his exhaustive travels along the east coast of North America and the West Indies. It was not until 1971, however, that a separate graphics department under the leadership of a curator was established to provide intellectual access to this material.  At present, the Library Company’s graphic collections contain over 75,000 items encompassing maps, cartoons, portrait prints, photographic and printed views of Philadelphia, historical and commemorative prints, architectural plans, and original drawings and watercolors.

The Print & Photograph Department, however, is more than just a static collection of graphic items.  A collection without the staff to care for it, to catalog it, or to make it accessible to researchers is a group of items in dead storage in a warehouse. A collection needs to grow and to respond (and maybe even to shape) scholarly and public interest in its subject matter or else it loses its relevance.  New fields of interest have opened up in the last forty years, and how the Print Department looks at its collection and what it collects has continued to evolve.  The technological revolution of the last 15 to 20 years has also dramatically affected almost every aspect of the staff’s work with the collection, as well as the public’s expectation of how they will interact with the collection.

Reaching the forty-year milestone gives us the opportunity to examine the accomplishments of the last four decades and to look forward to what the upcoming decades hold in store.



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