Library Company picks new director, a maven of graphic novels and scholarship

Michael J. Barsanti, director of foundation relations at the Free Library of Philadelphia and a scholar of the works of James Joyce, has been named director of the Library Company of Philadelphia, succeeding Richard S. Newman, who resigned in June.

“We are thrilled,” said Howell Rosenberg, chair of the Library Company’s board of trustees, which elected Barsanti unanimously Tuesday after a national search. “Mike’s business and academic work will be among the keys to success that he will bring to us.”

Barsanti is a graduate of Williams College and holds a doctorate in English literature from the University of Pennsylvania. He is a former associate director of the Rosenbach Museum and Library, and program officer at the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, where he directed the Cultural Management Initiative.

The new director is also an entrepreneur; he founded Throwaway Horse, a company devoted to fostering a deeper understanding of literary works by fusing the visual cues of graphic novels with the aid of the Internet and social media.

The company’s flagship project is Ulysses "Seen," a graphic novel adaptation of Joyce’s Ulysses that features the art of Rob Berry in a web-based comics format.

“I love graphic novels,” Barsanti said. “At the Rosenbach, I was the resident James Joyce guy, so all the crazy James Joyce calls came to me. I met with a guy, sat down across the table from him, who wanted to make a graphic novel version of Ulysses.”

“I thought, ‘This is crazy,’ ” he said. Ulysses is about language. A graphic novel?

“But as I looked at his work — it was the Philadelphia artist Rob Berry — it gave me something new,” Barsanti said. “I like these points of access that really open things up … without dumbing them down.”

Barsanti said he was deeply honored to be chosen to head the Library Company — he begins Feb. 20 — and believes that “improving a community through the sharing of knowledge,” the Library Company’s mission laid out by founder Benjamin Franklin, “has never been more relevant.”

He said he was fortunate because the Library Company, a private research institution, is very stable, with no immediate financial problems. The scholarly world it serves, however, is changing, and Barsanti sees the need to examine that change and find ways for the Library Company to address it. Over the long term, that will also maintain stability and aid fund-raising.

“The world of scholars is changing,” he said. “The number of history majors is declining. The number of departments of history is shrinking.

“The idea of sharing knowledge for [joint] improvement is really resonant today,” he said. The Library Company must go about “opening up opportunities … that are outside the bounds of normal academic life.”

That might include partnerships with other institutions, the use of Library Company resources to create non-scholarly public programming, or even arts projects. 

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