One of the first things that I observed upon first entering the Special Collections Library of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, was the number visitors studying documents from the collection boxes. Each visitor was carefully and thoughtfully conducting research on a theme of their interest.
As an intern in the Programs and Services department of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, I had heard that the Special Collections Library at HSP houses over 21 million original documents, spanning over 350 years. I was personally very excited to perform research in this collection for the first time. Even though I had a general idea of what I intended to research, I still was unsure of the specifics of my topic. I knew that I wanted to concentrate on early Irish Immigration into the United States, but was debating in which direction I should commence my research.
While determining which potential areas to direct this work, I decided to take a brief look around the Historical Society’s Special Collections Library. With just a quick walk around the Library’s “Pennsylvania Room”, I was able to locate numerous fascinating articles of the past, including newspaper notices, church records, picture collections, marriage records, directories, genealogy documents, county histories and much more. Although I was amazed at the depth of materials in the Pennsylvania Room, these records were just a fraction of what is included in the Library’s five floors of historical documents.
After my brief walk around the Pennsylvania Room, I brought my desired topic to the reference desk of the Library, located just outside of the reading room. The Librarian at the reference desk assisted me with locating materials relating to Irish immigration and helped me to determine the direction of my research. This gentleman was eager to help make my first experience in the Library as delightful as possible.
The Librarian’s name was Lee Arnold, he has been involved with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania for over twenty years. Mr. Arnold suggested some ideas on where would be a good starting point for my research. For instance, he mentioned that it might be useful if I focused my attention, not solely on Irish immigration, but more specifically, on the importance of the contributions of the Irish immigrants in Philadelphia.
To help me get started, Mr. Arnold provided me with a “Finding Aid”. This document was a starting point for me to uncover the contributions of Irish Immigrants in Philadelphia. At first I was unsure of what a “Finding Aid” entailed, but Mr. Arnold explained that the Historical Society provides Finding Aids for many collections in the Library.
The particular Finding Aid that I received contained both an introductory abstract, as well as a highly detailed background note about the Lea and Febiger records at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The Finding Aid also indicated that the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's library collections contain over 200 boxes of original documents from Lea and Febiger and its ancestors. The Finding Aid was vital for my research because it revealed that Lea and Febiger was a Publishing Company made possible by an Irish Immigrant named Mathew Carey, a native of Dublin, who came to Philadelphia in 1784.
The Finding Aid also provided that within a year of Carey’s arrival to Philadelphia, he started one of the first publishing houses in the city. Most notably, the Finding Aid provided that this Publishing House contributed to medical and scientific publishing and that Carey’s company produced works by several famous authors including Edgar Allen Poe, James Fenimore Cooper and Sir Walter Scott. Another Librarian named Willhem Echevarria, who has been with HSP for nearly seven years, assisted me in my research by helping me access HSPs online digital collections. Willhem showed me several items in the online archives of the Historical Society including digital photographs, subject guides, and online editions of several of HSP’s finding aids, one of which was the online finding aid for the Lea and Febiger records.
After I returned the original Finding Aid to Mr. Arnold, I requested a box of Mr. Carey’s manuscripts, which was quickly made available to me by one of the Librarians. Since these letters were written in the late 1700s, I was very nervous to touch the pages of these manuscripts as they appeared to be quite fragile. Yet, after expressing my concern to the Librarian, she she carefully explained to me the best way to handle these historical documents. I read through twenty of Mathew Carey’s original letters and learned a great deal about the origins of the Lea and Febiger Company and the contributions of Mathew Carey to the City of Philadelphia.
Next, I located a book in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania collection about early Irish immigrants in the United States. The book, in specific, had a focus on Irish Immigration into Philadelphia. This work entitled, Irish America, was written by Richard Demeter and serves as a “historical travel guide.” Some of the information presented in Irish America revealed historical information in which I was not familiar.
For instance, the book informs that three signers of the Declaration of Independence were natives of Ireland (p.313), and that the first printed copies of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were published by John Dunlap, a native of Ireland (p.405). Furthermore, the book mentions that Dunlap published The Pennsylvania Packet, which was the first daily newspaper of the United States of America (p.405). Even after reading only a few chapters of this book, I gained a great understanding of the monumental contributions of the early Irish immigrants who came to Philadelphia.
In summary, my first research experience at the Library of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania was both inspiring and educational. I started with a research topic that I originally pursued just for my own enjoyment and decided to turn the project into a 20-page research thesis, which I am excited to be submitting as my senior paper at my university. With the outstanding records and references in the Historical Society’s Library, along with the friendliness and helpfulness of the Librarians, my first experience in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania library was both productive and gratifying.