The Athenaeum of Philadelphia and Penn Libraries have entered into an unusual partnership that will allow users of Penn’s vast library system, which encompasses many millions of volumes, to gain access to the Athenaeum’s renowned, but much smaller, collection.

Similarly, members of the Athenaeum, founded in 1814 and Philadelphia’s last remaining subscription library, will gain borrowing and research privileges from Penn.

“It’s a wonderful benefit for our members,” said Athenaeum executive director Peter Conn. “It’s a wonderful benefit to be more visible…. We do have a remarkable collection of historical materials, mostly of the city of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley region.”

The Athenaeum, in a National Historic Landmark building at 219 S. Sixth St. on Washington Square, may be smaller than Penn, but its focus on architecture, the built environment, and the decorative arts has been steady almost from its beginning. If Penn is a jewelry-store giant, the Athenaeum is an exquisite pearl.

“Philadelphia’s fabulous compendium of architecture from every period — Colonial, Greek Revival, High Victorian, Arts and Crafts, Modern, and Postmodern — has long been a laboratory for Penn research and innovation," said David Brownlee, who is both an Athenaeum board member and a Penn professor of art history.

"Our new library partnership with the Athenaeum of Philadelphia makes easily accessible the Athenaeum’s unmatched collection of historic architectural publications and other documentation for the study of this rich legacy,” he said.

The Athenaeum of Philadelphia library reading room. The Athenaeum and Penn Libraries are partnering to share catalogs and resources.
MARGO REED / Staff Photographer
The Athenaeum of Philadelphia library reading room. The Athenaeum and Penn Libraries are partnering to share catalogs and resources.

Jon Shaw, Penn associate vice provost and deputy university librarian, said the partnership arrangement expands Penn’s efforts in a number of ways, not the least being the library’s efforts to explore “novel and experimental” affiliations.

The Athenaeum relationship, he said, “was better than creating a new type of collection; it was access to a historic collection.”

There are no costs associated with the agreement, he said.

An interior staircase at the venerable Philadelphia Athenaeum
MARGO REED / Staff Photographer
An interior staircase at the venerable Philadelphia Athenaeum

“We wanted to engage in a unique partnership,” Shaw said, noting that the effort can be duplicated by large urban universities anywhere.

“This was a model,” he said. “We modeled this process, and we think it will have impact for historical research and how Penn and other similarly located universities engage with neighboring and regional independent libraries, archives, and museums.”

Constantia Constantinou, Penn’s vice provost and director of libraries, said such partnerships are one of the libraries’ “highest priorities.”

Conn said that the Athenaeum is interested in increasing its visibility “to a larger community than our own membership and those scholars who already know about us.”

“So by merging our online catalog into Penn’s much larger catalog," he continued, "we are able to be visible to and easily accessible to students and faculty, scholars, and researchers at Penn. But Penn, in turn, is embedded, as is the Athenaeum, in a set of other consortium arrangements.”

Every member of Penn’s various networks — for instance, the Ivy Plus Libraries Confederation — will now have access to the Athenaeum’s holdings.

Peter Conn at the Athenaeum
MARGO REED / Staff Photographer
Peter Conn at the Athenaeum

“It’s, in a sense, an effort to tear down walls, create visibility, make the Athenaeum collection better known,” said Conn. “By partnering with Penn, we are in effect partnering with any other institution that Penn is partnering with.

The Athenaeum holdings will be clearly identified in the Penn catalog system. “We won’t lose our identity,” said Conn.

Penn’s Shaw calls the effort a “lightweight integration” that began as an experiment. The result, he said, better serves “the needs of students and faculty across the country,” and helps “sustain and preserve and promote our neighboring libraries and their collections.”

The university plans to continue forming such partnerships, he added.

“Taken together, we’ll be transforming access to special collections on an unprecedented scale if we continue down this road,” Shaw said. “This is already in effect, and we’ve seen a radical boom in the use of their resources. It’s been wonderful.”