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Friends Library archives long history

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Located immediately to the left of McCabe’s entrance, the Friends Historical Library Reading Room boasts artwork and rows of desks, looking like what one might expect in an almost 150-year-old academic library. The collection holds more than first meets the eye; amidst the stacks are thousands of books, photographs, pamphlets, and Quaker meeting records spanning from before Swarthmore College opened its doors, through the school’s history, to the modern day.

Established in 1871, the library has moved around, occupying areas throughout campus such as the location where Worth Health Center now stands.  It also survived the 1881 fire, which destroyed Parrish Hall and delayed instruction soon after the school opened. A New York Times article from September 27, 1881, explains that the 4,000 volumes in the college’s library were all destroyed, save for “a very valuable collection of old books, manuscripts, [and others] relating to the early history of Friends.” These, Curator Christopher Densmore explained, are still part of the Friends Historical Library’s collection.

“The collections, at least at that time, were in a fireproof room. Think of a large, walk-in vault for a bank,” he said.

The library retains 17th century documents today, as well as journals, correspondences, and papers of Quakers and individuals related to Swarthmore College throughout history. Papers from the Parrish and Magill families, among others, are also included in the collection.

Archivist Susanna Morikawa said, “I especially enjoy the family papers, which often span many generations.”

In addition to Quaker history in general, the library supervises archives of the college and the Swarthmore Borough Historical Society. Information regarding the school’s students, staff, faculty, administrators, and alumni is accessible and searchable online for those interested. Publications, architectural plans, and syllabi from a World War II-era relief and reconstruction training program remain in the Friends Historical Library’s collections.

Beyond paper records, the library houses a range of artwork, including several copies of Edward Hicks’s “The Peaceable Kingdom.” Variably depicting Quakers, Native American Indians, a child, and animals, the general framework for this painting is derived from Isaiah 11:6, which explains, “the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat, […] and a little boy will lead them.”

“He could paint it over and over again, make many, many copies of it, and each one would be a little different,” Densmore said.

The collection includes other works by 18th and 19th century artist Benjamin West, who lived in the house now occupied by Public Safety. Some works relate to West’s personal life, such as a sketch of his father, John West. Many of his paintings involve historical and religious themes, such as his 1771 painting of William Penn’s treaty with Native Americans. An engraving of this is housed in the Friends Historical Library.

Also included are both positive and negative depictions of Quaker meetings. In some modifications on a theme seen in an engraving by Ernst von Hesse Wartegg, the devil is depicted whispering into a woman’s ear while she speaks during meeting time. This illustration reflects to the historical audience that the Friends allowed what was considered a sinful behavior: permitting women to speak.

On exhibit in the past have been documents that explore issues surrounding horticulture, slavery, and the LGBT community. Researchers have used the library for Quaker history in addition to their own research around these social topics.

“Because Quakers were involved in so many social concerns, their work in abolition, education, and prison reform are reflected in the collections,” Morikawa said.

Professors occasionally bring students to the library to showcase its resources. Gilbert Guerra ’19, a student in Professor Lee Smithey’s Introduction to Peace and Conflict Studies course, visited with the class and noted the breadth of materials available.

“Getting to see it in depth led me to appreciate it as a resource a lot more, and I think that if more students knew about its history, they would take advantage of having it on campus,” he said.

Besides being open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. during the week, the library hosts a variety of events open to the public. On Monday, Oct. 31st, in honor of Halloween, they held an event entitled “Spirits and Rappings: Pageants of 19th Century Séances.” They also hold Underground Railroad tours and other educational events throughout the year.

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