Turning the Page on 151 Years of the Friends Historical Library

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In McCabe Library, to the left of the main entrance, lies one of the largest collections of Quaker history in the world. This collection is known as the Friends Historical Library (FHL), and it has just celebrated 151 years of serving as a research hub for Swarthmore students and visiting academics alike. 

FHL is one of four special collections that are held in McCabe year round. The other three collections include the Peace Collection, the Rare Book Collection, and the Swarthmore College Archives. FHL specifically focuses on collecting and preserving records, notes, letters, and photographs from Quakers from the seventeenth century to the present. FHL also maintains Swarthmore College’s connection to Quaker history, as the college was founded by Quakers in 1864 and has ties to the Society of Friends.  

In an email to The Phoenix, Celia Caust-Ellenbogen, an archivist for FHL since 2015, described the role of FHL at Swarthmore College. 

“FHL is one of the world’s foremost libraries for studying Quakers of the past and present, and the causes they were involved with — abolitionism, women’s rights, Native American rights, prison reform, environmentalism, etc. We are a resource where students can come to find primary sources for projects and papers. We also do a lot of sessions for classes/professors. And we hire students and offer a research fellowship,” wrote Caust-Ellenbogen.

While some students might wonder how Quaker history can inform their day to day studies, the staff and curators at FHL were quick to point out how Quakers have been tied to major historical events. 

In an interview with The Phoenix, Jordan Landes, a curator at the FHL, spoke about the prominence of Quakers throughout history and what studying Quaker history can teach people in other areas. 

“Quakers managed to interact with loads of people in the world. So sometimes we have records of these interactions where these are the only records. So we get researchers who come from all over the world, not necessarily working on Quakers … Of course we also get plenty who are working on Quaker history,” she said.

Landes went on to provide an example of how studying Quaker history can reveal other information that only Quakers kept records of. 

 “There was a Quaker woman in 1850 named Mira Sharpless Townsend, and she was one of the founders of the Rosine Association, which was the place that worked with women who faced abuse, were unhoused, or were involved in sex work. [Thompson] kept casebooks with a little biography of each woman, and in some cases, this might be the only place where that woman’s life is recorded. They weren’t Quakers, but because they interacted with Quakers, we have records of them,” she said.  

Caust-Ellenbogen also wrote about the importance of studying Quaker history, and how Quaker beliefs impact how they interact with the world and with history. 

“Quakers are committed to social justice,” she wrote. “It’s an alternative way of looking at history where you’re not just looking at the history of war and conflict, but looking at other moments in history. When you look at the way that Quakers write about history, they’re attuned to the ways people exercise power and authority over each other, and they’re critical of that,” she wrote.

This alternative way of looking at history, and the extensive records that Quakers kept, can be a valuable research tool. One of the purposes of FHL is to be a resource where students can book appointments and conduct research with the help of the staff.

“I mean, we can support all kinds of research. If you’re interested in physics, I’ve got Quaker physicists. If you’re interested in prison justice, that’s what that whole cart is about. So we can really support research in any field,” said Landes.

Another way FHL supports research on campus is by translating difficult to read handwriting in documents. 

“Students can bring in a primary source, even if we don’t have the original here for help reading the handwriting,” Caust-Ellenbogen added when listing off the way FHL supports students. 

The FHL also presents parts of their collection to classes or brings students to FHL so they can look through Quaker history as part of their course syllabus. 

“[Caust-Ellenbogen] organizes class sessions throughout the year, and in all we do about 30 per semester. Her sessions are booming, so we do more each year” said Landes.

Outside of academic research, students and visitors alike can also just come to see some of the many FHL collections, records, and papers. Each staff member has a favorite piece in the FHL that they love to talk about to any visitors. 

Caust-Ellenbogen’s favorite piece is the Frank Funk cartoons from the Anna Wharton Morris papers, a collection of diaries and journals that detail the Progressive-era prison reform movement in the early 19th century. The cartoons specifically depict scenes at the Eastern State Penitentiary, located in Philadelphia. Caust-Ellenbogen appreciates the insights the papers provide on life inside the Eastern State Penitentiary from the perspective of a person incarcerated and the discussions they have prompted within different Swarthmore classes. 

Landes’ favorite pieces are the epistles, or letters exchanged between Quakers in the 17th century, the first century of the Society of Friends. Landes specifically enjoys the letters because they show what individual Quakers felt and how the Quaker faith developed over time. 

For students who fall in love with FHL and come to find their own favorite pieces hidden amongst the many pieces of history the collection holds, there are paid opportunities within FHL for student researchers every year. 

“We also have students who are fellows, and they get paid to spend a certain amount of time here doing research. They get to pick their topic and then see where it leads,” said Landes. 

Some past student fellows have spent time researching Swarthmore College founder Lucretia Mott, the history of enslavement and racism within the Society of Friends, and the Rosine Association. 

FHL also has paid summer opportunities for student research fellows who are looking for a summer internship. In summer 2023, FHL is looking to hire students to work on the Black history and genealogy project, a project that focuses on collecting and maintaining African-American history and genealogy. This project includes resources like the 1847 Philadelphia African-American Census and datasets for the Association for the Care of Colored Orphans. 

While FHL is excited about the current support they offer, they are also hoping to improve upon their collection. Landes specifically referenced their hope to build upon the physical space of the FHL. 

“The goal someday is to have a new building or refurbish parts of this building that puts [our collection] in even better conditions than we try for now,” said Landes.

In the meantime, though, both Landes and Caust-Ellenbogen emphasized how much they would like to hear from the Swarthmore community and how happy they are to help. 

“Archivists LOVE to hear from students; we are happy to advise over email or meet on Zoom or in person,” wrote Caust-Ellenbogen.

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