News Blog

Preserving the Pages of History


Of all of the volumes in Pennsylvania Hospital’s Historic Library, Stacey Peeples, the hospital’s curator-lead archivist, said her favorites are the botanical and natural history studies. Those texts were written and illustrated by some of the earliest researchers to document the flora and fauna of the East Coast.

“I love to see all of the illustrations. They’re so beautiful,” she said. “When you think of people seeing certain reptiles or birds or small mammals for the first time and what that would be like, it’s amazing. You’re not Googling it beforehand to make sure it’s safe. You’re just going and recording it so that people can learn from it.”

Those books are just a few of the 13,000 volume collection of priceless reference books housed at Pennsylvania Hospital. Over the next couple of months, that collection will receive a couple new layers of protection. First, a new heating and air conditioning system will be installed, giving staff greater control over temperature, but also, and maybe more importantly, the humidity.

What a Difference Air Conditioning Makes

Perhaps no other incident highlights the need for a great climate control system than the brief power outage in 2003. One hot, humid day that August, power went out in Philadelphia for a little less than 12 hours. For most people, that’s inconvenient, but for Peeples, it was the start to a six-month long battle.

The hospital was fine, it fell back on its generators, but the library’s HVAC system failed. Peeples said that within hours, the heat and humidity from the summer air crept in and volumes in one corner of the library were “sweating,” which she said looks just how it sounds – drops of water were actually forming on them. It was as if the volumes were perspiring.

Then came the mold. The mold on the books lasted long after the power kicked back on and the damp, summer air was shoved back outside. To get things back to normal, Pennsylvania Hospital’s engineering team constructed a small “workroom” inside of the library in which Peeples and her team gently vacuumed mold spores off each of the 13,000 volumes.

However, from that ordeal, the team learned how to better control the environment moving forward. The climate control system received an update and vents were installed at the bottom of each cabinet; air now circulates within the cabinets at all times.

When Sprinklers are Worse Than Fire

The new system upgrade will also give the library fire suppression for the first time in its existence. Fire systems in historic spaces with sensitive materials can be a complicated task. While sprinklers that put out water are great at knocking down fires, they’re also great at drenching absolutely everything in sight. That’s a very bad thing if everything in sight is fragile, hundreds of years old and priceless.

Instead, Jeff O’Neill, senior director of facilities, said they opted for a pre-action sprinkler system, which provides a finer mist to deprive the fire of oxygen, while protecting the contents of the room. He said this type of system is widely used in museums and other sensitive areas, including many of the Smithsonian storage facilities in Washington, DC.

“This is one more step to protect the historic value of the Pine Building,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill said that should the system be triggered, the powder itself would cause a problem, but would be cleanable. The fact that the books are behind glass – the original leaded glass – would give them a good layer of protection as well.

Bald EagleHumble Beginnings

What would become the historic library, now located in the Pine Building above the Great Court, received its first book in 1762 when John Fothergill, MD, sent over William Lewis’ An Experimental History of The Materia Medica, as well as a few other teaching materials for the “Young Men of Physic,” the young apprentices to the doctors here at the time.

The doctors at Pennsylvania Hospital then were inspired by the idea and established a working library for the aspiring doctors. Instead of independently profiting from the apprentices, the physicians used that money to hire an agent in London to ship over the most recent publications. 

“The entire origin of the library has to do Pennsylvania Hospital’s teaching tradition,” Peeples said.

The collection grew larger over time and was moved a couple of times before finding its final home on the second floor of the Pine Building. In the 1930s, a modern library was established for newer texts and it was decided at that time to leave the historic library intact.

Adapting for the Future

While it’s true the collection hasn’t changed since hospital leaders decided decades ago to preserve it, small changes have thoughtfully been made to the room to keep it functional, yet preserved moving forward. Peeples said every modification to the room is carefully considered. Its value is weighed against how it would detract from the authentic feel of the room.

For instance, Peeples said she worried about the vents that were added to the bookcases. They were obviously not original, but she said they were discrete enough and important enough to move forward.

And Peeples said the upcoming work for the new air and fire systems will be carefully monitored. She and her team will work cooperatively with contractors, ensuring they have safe access to the areas they need without disturbing the delicate volumes which surround them.

Now more than 250 years after receiving its first book, the library is receiving a major upgrade which will protect its one-of-a-kind collection well into the future, ensuring generations to come will have the chance to take in the collection, beautiful botanical illustrations and all.


Caption: Mark Catesby's illustration of The Bald Eagle, taken from The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, Volume 1

You Might Also Be Interested In...

About this Blog

This blog is written and produced by Penn Medicine’s Department of Communications. Subscribe to our mailing list to receive an e-mail notification when new content goes live!

Views expressed are those of the author or other attributed individual and do not necessarily represent the official opinion of the related Department(s), University of Pennsylvania Health System (Penn Medicine), or the University of Pennsylvania, unless explicitly stated with the authority to do so.

Health information is provided for educational purposes and should not be used as a source of personal medical advice.

Blog Archives


Author Archives

Share This Page: