Friday, March 31, 2017

Letter from the New Director

Dear Shareholders of the Library Company of Philadelphia,

Having just finished my first month as the Edwin Wolf 2nd Director, it is a good time to introduce myself.

These first few weeks have been a whirlwind – meeting with staff, board, and members to learn as much as I can about how this amazing organization works from the inside.  As hectic as this time has been, my work has been animated by the pride and excitement that comes from crossing the threshold of 1314 Locust Street every day.  I feel extraordinarily fortunate to serve you as your Director, and to be entrusted with the care of this institution.

Dr. Michael J. Barsanti, Edwin Wolf 2nd Director

In 1976, I was eight years old, and I lived in a suburb of Boston.  I was exactly the right age, and in the right place, to be swept up in Bicentennial fever.  I had a tricorn hat that I got on a visit to the USS Constitution, a cap-firing musket, and the original cast recording of “1776.”  My fascination with the early years of our country has never left me – which just adds to the feeling of fulfillment that comes from being here.

With every day, I am also more aware that my experience and skills have found a place where they are all fully engaged. For me, this position is the culmination of a 25-year journey through the fields of academia, museum management, philanthropy, and fundraising, with occasional explorations into digital entrepreneurship, education, and literary programming.  There are few matters (but there will be a few!) that will cross my desk that I have not had some experience with before.

My vision for the Library Company is that we become a place known for innovation in history, particularly new ways of learning history that will engage the general public.  I believe the best way to do this is to retain our focus on our scholars, and to provide for them a platform to reach broader audiences  Thus we build on what we do best – serve the scholars who are writing the next draft of history.

You, as a member, will be critical to realizing this vision.  The Library Company is built on Membership, and the only reason the organization has survived so long and so well is because of the dedication of its members.  I want to reanimate the spirit of our original Shareholders who sought to learn not just from the library, but from each other.  To this end, we will look closely at our membership program and talk to as many of you as possible, to try to find new ways of serving your needs and connecting you to each other.

Again, I am deeply grateful and honored to hold this unique place, and I look forward to working with you to continue its success and make it a dynamic and relevant organization as it looks ahead to its 300th year.


Dr. Michael J. Barsanti
Edwin Wolf 2nd Director

PS: I hope I will get to meet you at the upcoming Annual Shareholder’s Meeting, which will be held here at the Library Company on May 9, 2017 at 5 pm.

Fellow Spotlight: Missionaries and Motherhood

Cassandra Berman, Library Company Fellow
In January, I had the good fortune to be in residence at the Library Company as an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow. I spent my month in Philadelphia searching for misbehaving mothers – for those women who had, for a variety of reasons, broken laws or social norms and had attracted the fascination of the public for doing so.  To my delight, the Library Company was full of stories of women who had violated the boundaries of nineteenth-century motherhood.   

Not unlike today, women in the nineteenth century were inundated with advice on how to birth and raise their children.  In popular literature, idealized mothers were routinely depicted as white, Protestant, and middle-class, and motherhood was envisioned as an all-encompassing vocation.  Many women, however, were either unwilling or unable to live up to these ideals, and debate over their transgressions filled the pages of newspapers, religious tracts, health guides, and even novels.  I found one such group to be particularly well represented in the Library Company’s collections: missionary women.

Most missionary women in the early nineteenth century fit the ideals – at least on the surface – of white Protestant femininity.  Accompanying their husbands to such far-flung locations as India, Burma, and the Sandwich Islands, however, took them far from the confines of the American domestic sphere.  Furthermore, many became mothers for the first time while consumed with missionary work – translating the Bible, setting up schools, and navigating tense relationships with local people – and in trying physical conditions.  

Cecil B. Hartley. The Three Mrs. Judsons,
 the Celebrated Female Missionaries
 (Boston, 1860),
Often, the missionary lifestyle proved entirely incompatible with motherhood.  Ann Judson, for example, traveled to Burma in 1812 and immersed herself in acquiring language fluency and establishing a school for girls.  While abroad, she bore two children, both of whom died young, likely succumbing to local diseases.  In her posthumously published memoir, she discussed her missionary work in detail but made no mention of her son, Roger, until his death in 1816.

 Several years later, her husband, the Reverend Adoniram Judson, was captured during the Anglo-Burmese War.  Ann decided to follow the prisoners, who were held for nineteen months, and camp nearby in a poorly equipped hut.  This she did with her three-month-old daughter, Maria, in tow.  Both mother and daughter contracted smallpox; Ann died soon after Adoniram’s release, and the motherless Maria not long after.  Ann certainly mourned her son, Roger, and was no doubt concerned for Maria’s safety, yet her identity as missionary superseded that of mother. And while she became a popular symbol of female piety after her death in 1826, some also condemned Ann’s maternal transgressions and missionary zeal.  In the margins of the Library Company’s 1827 edition of Ann Judson’s published letters, one reader betrayed this disapproval.  Ann sought comfort in assurances that Roger was in heaven, but the anonymous reader noted that her own philosophy and inattention to her child guaranteed he was not: “The child was damned according to Mrs. Judson’s doctrine.  If millions of Burmese were to be damned because they were ignorant of what they never heard,” the note reads, “so was this child.” (Ann Hasseltine Judson, An Account of the American Baptist Mission to the Burman Empire, London: Joseph Butterworth and Son, 1827; 48-49)

Woods, Leonard. A Sermon Preached at Haverhill,
 (Boston, 1814), frontispiece.

Motherhood and mission may have been incompatible. Interestingly, however, many missionary women considered mothers and children central to their work.  Harriet Newell, whose popular memoir is also housed at the Library Company, was motivated in part to travel to India by rumors of widespread infanticide – she had read accounts of mothers sacrificing their children in the river Ganges, and by reports of widow burning – which she believed rendered many children motherless.  Like her friend Ann Judson, however, Harriet’s vocation likely imperiled her own offspring.  She spent the majority of her journey to India, and then on to the Isle of France, pregnant, eventually giving birth at sea.  Not long after, her ship was caught in a violent storm, and the infant became ill and died.  Weeks after reaching land, Harriet herself succumbed to consumption.  The library’s various editions of her letters and edited diary entries testify to the public’s enduring fascination, and perhaps discomfort, with Harriet Newell’s short life.

My immersion in these texts while at the Library Company has forced me to reconsider the parameters of motherhood in – and outside of – nineteenth-century America.  And while I hope I am not as judgmental, I am, like the anonymous scribbler in Ann Judson’s memoir, captivated by these women who defied the confines of motherhood. 

Cassandra Berman
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow

Never Caught: New Book By LCP Program Director

In February, Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar  (Library Company Program Director of the Program in African American History and the Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Black Studies and History at the University of Delaware) published Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge. Never Caught follows the journey of young woman and slave, Ona Judge, as she makes her daring escape to New England. Owned by Washington’s wife Martha, Judge made her exhilarating flight to freedom rather than be sent back south as a gift to Martha’s granddaughter. Liberation was not without its consequences, however; Judge was tirelessly pursued by the Washingtons until George’s death years later.

While researching her first book, Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City, Dunbar came across Judge in an escaped slave advertisement. Intrigued by the runaway slave’s circumstances, Dunbar elected to focus the research of her next book on Judge. Through this captivating window into history, Never Caught explores not only the famous founding father’s perception to slavery but highlights the idea of freedom and what it meant to those enslaved. 

To commemorate the Library Company’s 2017 Juneteenth Freedom Seminar (Thursday, June 15) Dr. Dunbar, will present a lecture focusing on Ona Judge and her story. For event details, please go to or contact Clarissa Lowry at 215-546-3181 or  

Clarissa Lowry
Events and Programs Coordinator

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