Thursday, May 16, 2013

John Van Horne to Step Down in 2014

Library Company Director John Van Horne has announced that he will retire in May 2014 after almost thirty years at the helm. When he took over leadership of the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1985, special collections libraries operated pretty much the way they always had.  It was just before the advent of the personal computer, and the Library Company had recently acquired a Wang word processor. Van Horne remembers the first FAX machine arriving in 1987, a clunky affair which cost several thousand dollars and used thermal paper. Since then, the digital revolution has transformed almost every aspect of the research environment, from the electronic catalog and online databases to online access to digitized images of the collections.

Van Horne has presided over this dramatic transformation with attentiveness to the needs of visitors, researchers, and members; a keen instinct for opportunity; and an unwavering reverence for the institution’s history and mission.  “This library has been in continuous operation for 282 years.  Benjamin Franklin himself believed that it helped instill in Americans their passion for democratic citizenship. I cannot imagine a more critical task than ensuring that scholars and the public are able to have access these collections and the historical insights they make possible—and that they are preserved for future generations.”

Among the many ways in which Van Horne has fulfilled this trust and built the Library Company’s reputation as one of the very best independent research libraries in the country is by assembling a professional staff that includes experts in early American history; bookbinding; early photography and graphic arts; and rare book cataloging. In his 28 years at the helm of America’s first subscription library, the operating budget has grown from $500,000 to $2.5 million, the endowment has grown from $5 million to $27 million, and the Center City “campus” now includes a residential research center and a third building to provide for future collection storage space and programming space needs. Tellingly, he is equally proud of the fact that the collections and programs are still available to the public free of charge.

Among the accomplishments of Van Horne’s tenure are:
  • Significant additions to the Library Company’s collections through gift and purchase, including the 14,000-item Michael Zinman Collections of Early American Imprints and Bindings and the McNeil Americana Collection.
  • Establishment of a Research Fellowship Program for doctoral candidates and senior scholars, now in its 26th year with more than 600 “alumni” who have published more than 200 books based on Library Company research.
  • Creation and endowment of an innovative Program in Early American Economy and Society (PEAES), which supports acquisitions, research fellowships, public programs, exhibitions, and publications.
  • Establishment of ground-breaking programs in early African American History and in Visual Culture.
  • Major capital projects including renovation of a neighboring historic townhouse as a residential research center.
  • More than forty major exhibitions; countless lectures, conferences, and other public programs; a robust publication program; and extensive collaborative ventures.
President B. Robert DeMento expresses the gratitude of the Board of Trustees by observing that “John Van Horne has made a profound contribution to the history of this nation, both through his dedicated stewardship of irreplaceable collections of rare early American books and prints and through his devotion to supporting the scholarship of others and, particularly, increasing access for young researchers. He has certainly put his stamp on this institution,” continues DeMento, “and the Board has a very large task in front of us to fill his shoes. We are taking steps to be sure that we identify a leader who is capable of building on John’s legacy as well as taking us into the next phase.”

Van Horne, 63, will step down a year from now, in May 2014, allowing him time to make substantial progress on two projects close to his heart that he would like to see accomplished before he leaves: securing an endowment for the Program in African American History and expanding the Library Company’s digitization efforts.

An elected member of the American Philosophical Society and the American Antiquarian Society, Van Horne received a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and a doctoral degree in history from the University of Virginia. He has served as President of the Independent Research Libraries Association and currently serves on the Board of the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science; the Committee on Library of the American Philosophical Society; and the Academic Affairs Committee of Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library. He is Chair of the Victorian Society Scholarship Fund and has previously served on the boards of the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary, the National Humanities Alliance, and the Abraham Lincoln Foundation of the Union League of Philadelphia. He has edited or co-edited numerous volumes and published a large number of scholarly articles.

Made for a Day, Yesterday—Historical Ephemera at the Library Company

Children’s Patent Elastic Knee Protector. New York: Chas. Shield’s Sons, ca. 1880. Chromolithograph.

Remnants of Everyday Life: Historical Ephemera in the Workplace, Street, and Home, on display through December 13, 2013, showcases the Library Company’s unique collections of early American ephemera which range from small fragments as Victorian-era trade cards to wall-size recruitment posters. Curated by Visual Culture Program co-Directors Rachel D’Agostino and Erika Piola, the exhibition explores the creation, dissemination, and consumption of the transient printed materials ubiquitous in the daily lives of our forbearers.

Remnants of Everyday Life shows how the stylistic evolution of ephemera, intrinsically tied to changes in mass production technologies, corresponded with shifts in cultural values and priorities. The exhibition examines the history of graphic design, the changing nature of 19th-century leisure activities, and the impact of popular print media and fads on Victorian-era consumerism. Displayed items include one of the few known silhouettes of an African American, the manumitted slave and profile cutter Moses Williams; the ground-breaking 1870 commercial graphic design manual Typographia; and one of the first illustrated circus posters, issued in 1828—as well as a range of posters and broadsides, business forms and stationery, novelty postcards, parlor games, and pop-up trade cards.

Hair book compiled by Margaret Williams, 1839.
The Library Company has one of the country’s largest, most important, and most varied collections of historical ephemera, initiated with the purchase of the Du Simitière Collection in 1785. In 2012 the Library Company completed a two-year effort, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, to arrange, catalog, and selectively digitize the nearly 30,000 pieces in our holdings. This exhibition was made possible, in part, by the generous support of the Philadelphia Cultural Fund and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

2013 Juneteenth Freedom Seminar

On June 19th, 1865—two-and-a-half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was issued—Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. The anniversary now serves as a symbolic day of freedom known as Juneteenth, and the Library Company annually hosts a program in remembrance. On Friday, June 21 this year, “African American Women in the Era of Emancipation” will explore the Civil War experiences of free and enslaved black women as they challenged slavery and defined freedom on the front lines.

African American history of the Civil War is often centered on black men’s military enlistments, a patriotic endeavor that reaffirmed their manhood and proved their fitness for citizenship and suffrage. Our panelists will examine the varied ways in which African American women envisioned their womanhood in a new era, contributed to the Union war effort, and hastened the abolition of slavery through decisive actions such as self-emancipation with family members, creating employment opportunities as teachers or cooks in Union refugee camps, and nursing sick and wounded black Union soldiers. 

Moderated by Program in African American History Director Erica Armstrong Dunbar, the panel discussion features three scholars whose research interests focus on the lives of black women. Daina Ramey Berry is Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Texas, Austin where her research focuses on gender, labor, family, and economy among the enslaved. Her paper is entitled “‘Soldiers Was Around Me Very Thick’: Enslaved Women in the 1860s.” A literary historian, Lois Brown is Class of 1958 Distinguished Professor at Wesleyan University. Her paper, “‘Ah, what a day I've had!’: The Storied Missions of Harriet Tubman, Susie King Taylor, and Charlotte Forten in the Civil War South,” examines the work of three black women who ventured from the North to the war-torn South in order to have a stake in remaking American society. Thavolia Glymph is Associate Professor of African & African American Studies and History at Duke University. Her paper, "Enslaved Women as Refugees in the Civil War," builds upon her current research into the lives of black women and children in Civil War refugee and labor camps.

Past conferences have been devoted to the controversy surrounding the discovery of slave quarters at George Washington’s Philadelphia home and the impact of emancipation across the United States, the Caribbean, and Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. To register to attend the conference, visit

Rare Book Expert Michael Suarez to Speak at 2013 Annual Dinner

Dr. Michael Suarez, Director of the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School, will be this year’s Annual Dinner speaker on Tuesday, November 19. A preeminent scholar on the history of the book and eighteenth-century literature, he co-edited The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Volume 5, 1695-1830 and The Oxford Companion to the Book. A talented poet, Dr. Suarez was awarded the 2008 Foley Poetry Contest for his poem, Going. He is also a Jesuit priest who holds four master’s degrees in English and Theology and a Ph.D. in English literature from Oxford University. Dr. Suarez has lectured widely on the future of the book and of reading in the digital age.

The University of Virginia’s Rare Book School offers courses throughout the year on topics concerning old and rare books, manuscripts, and special collections. Library Company staff members regularly attend the school, which serves antiquarian booksellers, collectors, conservators, rare book librarians and others. Librarian James Green serves on the Board of Directors and taught “The History of the Book in America, c. 1700-1830” in 2011. In addition to serving as Director, Dr. Suarez is also a Professor of English and Honorary Curator of Special Collections at the University of Virginia.

LCP News Menu