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Van Pelt Library on Nov. 7, 2021. Credit: Adya Gupta

The Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts hosted a New Acquisitions Showcase displaying artifacts acquired in the past year on the sixth floor of Van Pelt Library. 

The event, “From Plague Remedies to Photo Charms,” took place Oct. 12 and showed selected works from the Kislak Center’s 2021-2022 acquisitions. Items on display ranged from a 1921 poster for a Yiddish production of "Hamlet" in Latvia to a collection of advice and prescriptions for the plague from mid-15th century France.

Named after Jay I. Kislak, an avid collector of books and artifacts and a 1943 graduate of the Wharton School, the Kislak Center’s collection includes 300,000 printed books and codices and over 14,000 linear feet of modern manuscripts. “Its collections span the ancient world to the contemporary era and are global in scope,” according to Penn Libraries

Prior to the pandemic, there was no annual showing of the artifacts acquired and added to this collection each year. This meant that many acquisitions went unrecognized, according to Nicholas Herman, a curator at the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies and organizer of the showcase. 

Last year, the Kislak Center hosted its first showcase to show off recent acquisitions and invite the Penn community to engage with the center’s collection, which Herman described as “quite successful.” 

This year’s showcase included a handwritten translation of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” from 1920s Turkey, the first edition of what would become a popular English translation of “The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes, and a manuscript with patterns for tattoos with magical powers from 19th century Burma.

All of the artifacts displayed at the showcase had been acquired in the prior fiscal year. Lynne Farrington, the director of programs and a senior curator at the Kislak Center, described acquisitions as being obtained through a number of sources, with some items having been purchased from booksellers or at auctions with endowed funds, and some coming from donations.

Herman described the process as “like shopping, but a little more educational and a little more scholarly.”  

To host the event, staff at the Kislak Center compiled their favorite artifacts acquired in the last year, which were then organized into eight themes by Herman and Farrington. A goal of both the showcase and the collection as a whole is to have a diversity of “languages, topics, and time periods,” Herman said.

Farrington agreed, saying that the staff hoped that the artifacts selected for the collection would be of interest.

“[We wanted to] show the kinds of things we tend to bring into the collection every year,” she added. 

There are multiple opportunities for students to get involved in the Kislak Center’s work. 

College junior Aili Waller has been working with the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies as an undergraduate intern since last year. She has been working to get more undergraduates and undergraduate clubs involved with the library through events like having a medical club come in to see different medical manuscripts.

“If you’re a pre-med major, there are all these different medical manuscripts that have been created throughout history because that is how information was kept and passed on,” Waller said.

Displayed at the showcase this year was a Japanese manuscript of tongue and lip diagnoses written in Chinese from the 18th century.

“It does not matter what field you’re in, seeing these kinds of manuscripts can give you an idea of the history and development of your field,” Waller continued.

Interested students were also able to explore the artifacts at the showcase. After hearing about the event through the Art History department’s newsletter, College first year Eric Wang decided to spend a free afternoon at the showcase. 

“It’s fantastic to see all of this stuff displayed so you can see history come to life,” Wang said.

After a successful showcase this year, the team at the Kislak Center is already preparing for next year’s showcase. Farrington said that the “fiscal year 2023 will be a whole new group.”

Until then, students can find the entirety of the collection on the library's online catalog, Franklin. Online students, undergraduate students, students from other schools, non-students, and artists can request to see and interact with any of these artifacts in person in the Kislak Center’s reading room.

“Anyone can come in and look at any of these items in the reading room whenever they want,” said Herman. “We’re really open to any students who want to be engaged.”