Friday, July 29, 2016

PoliticalFest at LCP

PoliticalFest, the weeklong celebration of American political and presidential history, ended with great fanfare at the Library Company. On July 27, the last day of PoliticalFest, 442 people visited our main building on Locust Street. That is surely a single-day attendance record! Just as impressive, over 1500 people visited us during the six days of PoliticalFest. "This was a truly awesome event and I think it shows what the Library Company can do for the public," Facilities and Operations Manager Fran Dolan, who helped plan the event, observed.

PoliticalFest was in the works for several months. Planned in conjunction with the Democratic National Convention, it was the brainchild of former Governor Ed Rendell and his staff, who wanted to get convention delegates and their families out into the City of Brotherly Love during their Philadelphia stay. In 2000 for the Republican National Committee convention, Rendell said that a similar and very popular event took place at the Convention Center proper. But this time around, PoliticalFest pushed people into the city itself. PoliticalFest eventually centered on seven places—museums, libraries, and historic sites—where members of the public, as well as delegates, could see special installations on aspects of American political history. Besides the Library Company, other sites included the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the National Liberty Museum, the Philadelphia History Museum, Pennsylvania Convention Center, the National Constitution Center and the Union League. Each day, thousands of people made the rounds to these wonderful sites. The non-partisan event proved to be a rousing success.

At LCP, the Logan Room was turned into the main exhibit space. On one side of the room, a display case featured the life masks of both Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. "Cool!!" some young visitors exclaimed when they saw the casts of these famous men. In the middle of the room several display cases created a circle in the round which allowed visitors to see, on one side, documents relating to women's suffrage struggles in the 19th and early 20th centuries and, on the other side, classic founding documents from the 1780s and 90s (including John Dickinson's annotated copy of the U.S. Constitution and an original edition of Thomas Paine's "Common Sense"). Other display cases featured documents from the African Americana Collection and images from previous political conventions gathering in Philadelphia.

The Scheide Reading Room was temporarily converted into an open space allowing visitors to learn a bit more about the Library Company's status as an internationally-renowned research library (scholarly researchers were re-located to the Cassatt House seminar room). The reading room had one winning display: a glass case featuring the Library Company's "Articles of Association" from 1731. "Wow—it's like an IPO—an Initial Public Offering!" one woman said looking over our founding document. In many ways, she was right: this document, which has been posted online, told Philadelphia and the world that the Library Company was open for business as America's first subscription library (and, of course, a joint stock company).

The stories people told about visiting the Library Company were nearly as impressive as the number of overall visitors. "What a collection!" "I didn't know you had so many terrific things from the past." "I wish I had known about this place sooner so I could bring friends and family back." Over and over again, people told us that the Library Company was a special place. "I went to Penn, and so did my daughter," one woman said as she moved through the galleries, ending up at the Articles of Association. "But I never knew this was just on the other side of town. I really wish I had known about it. But I'm glad I know now." Clearly moved, she returned the next day for a second visit!

Tour guide, Noah Corbett, with guests and volunteers
For those concerned that the Library Company's collections might have been overwhelmed by the large numbers of people, there were no major problems. A throng of volunteers assigned by PoliticalFest monitored visitors in every room. A security guard was always on staff and we limited the number of people who could go through the exhibits at any one time. We also hired a professional educator, Noah Corbett, who took visitors through the exhibits in the Logan room, fielding questions and telling stories about the Library Company. A history teacher at Maritime Academy Charter School in Philadelphia, Noah previously worked as a tour guide at Eastern State Penitentiary. He was thrilled to have the opportunity to learn more about the Library Company. "I like the city and I like telling visitors about Philadelphia's history," he told us. Like others, he knew a little bit about Ben Franklin but not much about the Library Company. But, he continued, "it's a great place. We're only showing visitors a very small part of the collection but it's great to see so many people get excited about the Library Company's treasures. This is a great resource for the city." In fact, he thought it would be a great resource for his students too.

Our volunteers were equally impressed with the Library Company. Linda Cooper chose to work at the Library Company for perhaps an obvious reason: she lives in the neighborhood and has been to many of our events. Originally from Washington, D.C. area, she too is an educator (though she worked as an admissions administrator at a school in Maryland). "Of the seven places in PoliticalFest, I felt very comfortable coming to the Library Company," she said. "And I'm glad I did. The exhibits are great - they're very well done - and there's a nice variety of topics." She plans to return to the Library Company for lectures and other events in the future.

Heidi Schiavone, who also volunteered at the Library, said that Ben Franklin's historic connection to libraries in America drew her to the venerable institution at 1314 Locust Street As a librarian herself (in the South Lehigh School District), she was certainly interested in our role as the first subscription library in America. But she was so excited by the documents and exhibits that she even tweeted about how fun it was to volunteer at the Library Company. "I said that I learned a lot here, especially things about women's suffrage in the main display cases."

It is gratifying to know that so many people were inspired by Ben Franklin's humble library. But it is not surprising. We've been doing that for nearly 300 years!

Dr. Richard S.Newman

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