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Penn students have access to the Athenaeum's vast historical resources this academic year through a partnership with Penn Libraries.

Credit: Claire Ochroch

Housed in an Italian revivalist building in Old City, the Athenaeum of Philadelphia features an ornate, high-ceiling reading room filled with an extensive collection of maps, photographs, and architectural drawings on Philadelphia's history.

In February 2019, Penn Libraries entered into a partnership with the Athenaeum, granting students access to its vast historical resources. The partnership came about because the Athenaeum needed to update its library management system and Penn Libraries offered to put the Athenaeum's objects into its recently-updated system, said Jon Shaw, Penn's associate vice provost and deputy university librarian.

The partnership will allow people with access to Penn Libraries to use the Athenaeum’s material, and members of the Athenaeum will also be granted full access to Penn Libraries. 

The Athenaeum of Philadelphia was founded in 1814 as a membership library, and it now also functions as a museum and an event space. The library, which is classified as a National Historic Landmark, has been housed in its current building on S. Sixth Street since 1847. 

Credit: Claire Ochroch

Founded in 1814, the Athenaeum functions as a library, museum and events space.

To access materials from the Athenaeum, a Penn student can look them up in the Penn Libraries online system. Materials can be transported from one site to the other, and if an item is too fragile, students can view it directly at the Athenaeum.

Only months into the partnership, many have already reaped its benefits, said Peter Conn, the Athenaeum director and Penn English professor emeritus.

“Over the first few months of the partnership, at least as many books have been going from [the Athenaeum] to [Penn] as had been going from [Penn] to [the Athenaeum],” Conn said. “Students and faculty in the School of Design in particular, and in the School of Arts and Sciences.” 

The Athenaeum's collection was listed as more than 60,000 items in the Penn database, Shaw said. The partnership has allowed access to unique primary sources including original photographs, architectural drawings, and historical maps.

“I think [the partnership] really makes us this sort of powerhouse of resources between the Athenaeum art and architecture-related collections, our architectural archives downstairs [of Fisher Fine Arts Library], and then of course our special collections and general collections here," said Hannah Bennett, assistant university librarian for humanities & social sciences and director of the Fisher Fine Arts Library.

Credit: Claire Ochroch

The Athenaeum is home to multiple resources, such as its Thomas Ustick Walter collection. Walter was a famous architect who designed the extension of the United States Capitol building and Girard College in Philadelphia.

In the collection, there are also Walter's original, "hand-drawn, hand-colored, hand-inked" drawings for the buildings he was the architect for, Conn said.

Although the partnership has reached its original goal of granting Penn students access to the Athenaeum and vice versa, Penn librarians said there are opportunities for more partnerships in the future.

“I think part of the ratcheting up of [this collaboration] in future is not only digitizing it, but finding ways to preserve and sustain these collections,” Shaw said.

For Conn, the partnership sets a standard for educational cooperation.

“Think about it as a model of what larger and smaller institutions who share a neighborhood, who share some scholarly emphases, can do through cyberspace, which was otherwise not possible to do,” Conn said.