A Jewel of American History: The Library Company of Philadelphia's Zinman Collection Offers Meeting-Goers a Virtual Window into Early America. (Midwinter Meeting)

By Loreman, Diana T. | American Libraries, January 2003 | Go to article overview

A Jewel of American History: The Library Company of Philadelphia's Zinman Collection Offers Meeting-Goers a Virtual Window into Early America. (Midwinter Meeting)


Loreman, Diana T., American Libraries


Near the corner of 13th and Locust Streets in Philadelphia's Center City district Midwinter Meeting--goers will find a focal point for research in American history. Founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin, the Library Company of Philadelphia was the first American subscription library. Through a novel idea by a few gentlemen of modest wealth, the institution was completely supported by its shareholders: Each subscriber paid dues that were pooled together to import books from London.

This process laid the foundation for the Library Company's current strength as a research institution of great magnitude. Browsing through its core collection of 18th- and 19th-century works requested by the early shareholders, one can peer through a virtual window into the reading interests of early America.

Today the Library Company functions as an internationally renowned research library. Its holdings of approximately a half-million rare books, prints, photographs, and a small collection of early American art and artifacts provide insight into American culture from the colonial period to the end of the 19th century.

In March 2000, the Library Company of Philadelphia acquired a valuable collection from Michael Zinman, a prominent New York book collector. Assembled over the last 20 years, the Zinman Collection consists of more than 7,800 books, pamphlets, broadsides, almanacs, and ephemera printed in America before 1801, plus 2,700 duplicates and 1,000 magazine issues--approximately 11,500 items in all. It also contains numerous imprints that, because of textual variation, provenance, manuscript annotations, or binding, stand out as unique copies of an edition whose traits cannot be matched by the microfilm or digital copies that exist today. The Zinman Collection is most likely the last of its size and value to be gathered, as similar existing materials are currently housed in institutions and thus unavailable to collectors.

The acquisition of the Zinman Collection has increased the Library Company's entire holdings by 40%, making them second in size only to those of the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. Originally appraised at $8 million, the collection will cost the library just $1 million a year over a five-year period, with the remaining $3 million a gift from Zinman.

Because it contains imprints covering every aspect of early American life, the Zinman Collection will enhance the Library Company's reputation as an international center for research in early American history. …

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