He's handing in his Library (Company) card

John Van Horne, retiring from the Library Company of Philadelphia, plans to engage in scholarly work in early American history.
John Van Horne, retiring from the Library Company of Philadelphia, plans to engage in scholarly work in early American history. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 03, 2014

John Van Horne did not inaugurate the move into the computer age at the Library Company of Philadelphia. When he arrived in 1985, the venerable research archive already had a Wang word processor.

Van Horne quickly acquired a fax machine that used thermal paper and cost thousands of dollars.

Those antediluvian days obviously are long gone. Today the Library Company - the nation's oldest library and research institution, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731 - is swimming in digital waters. Van Horne has pushed for digitization of the entire collection: a half-million books, pamphlets, and other printed materials, and 100,000 visual images - graphics, photographs, and prints.

"You can imagine how many centuries it will take to digitize all that, if it ever gets done," he said the other day in his quiet office near the (well-populated) library reading room on Locust Street near 13th Street.

After almost 30 years at the helm, Van Horne, 64, is stepping down, handing the reins over to historian Richard S. Newman, 46, a Rochester Institute of Technology scholar and author of a highly praised biography of Richard Allen, founder of Mother Bethel A.M.E Church. Newman officially begins his tenure as Library Company director Monday.

Van Horne, who plans to engage in scholarly work in early American history, among other things, will turn over an institution that has grown enormously during his tenure. The annual operating budget is now $2.5 million, up from $500,000 30 years ago.

But what is remarkable about the Library Company is its stability. Directors, librarians, conservators, and other staff members tend to stay once they arrive, offering library users a simple, intangible benefit: The staff "knows the collection really well," as Van Horne puts it. "That's what makes this place really hum."

The catholic nature of the library's holdings has also become of greater importance over the last three decades, he said. Van Horne's legendary predecessor, Edwin Wolf II, who retired in 1985 after 32 years at the helm, first recognized the value of the diverse collection.

"In the 1960s, before anyone was really talking about African American history, before it was much of an academic field of inquiry, Edwin recognized that we had vast materials in our collection on that subject," said Van Horne. "They'd been here all along because we'd been collecting things since the 18th century, and a lot of our early directors were Quakers and abolitionists who were interested in matters of African history, slavery and race and the Caribbean, and related subjects."

Wolf mounted a groundbreaking exhibition of the material in 1969 and followed with a catalog of the collection's 12,000 books and materials related to African Americans.

Van Horne has built on this by establishing a program in African American history, and securing funding to support research in the area and "to foster the careers of younger scholars from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue that field," he said.

The program is now endowed, thanks to a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and will support research fellows, public programs, conferences, and acquisitions in perpetuity.

Van Horne has built similar endowed programs in women's history, early American history, and "visual culture," the latter "to bring attention to the prints in the collection."

Given the ever-growing collection and increased programming, the Library Company finds itself somewhat cramped. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, in the building next door, has shared its space, but that is not enough, nor is it a permanent solution to an ongoing problem.

As a result, the Library Company acquired the building directly behind it, across Latimer Street. How that building will be used is a decision Van Horne has decided to leave to Newman.

"It could be storage, it could be for projects, staff, public space, an auditorium - it has a lot of potential," said Van Horne. "To raise the money, to renovate it, and integrate it, that's what I'm leaving for Rich."

Also on the table, he said, is the Library Company's ongoing relationship with the Historical Society. The two institutions share space, programs, and other operations.

Although the idea of a merger is "a perennial" topic, it is "not on the table now" and is not being discussed, said Van Horne.


ssalisbury@phillynews.com

215-854-5594 @SPSalisbury

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