December 14, 2017

Philly Free Library to Merge with Rare Book Specialist Rosenbach

Dr. Rosenbach’s personal library on the third floor of the RML.

Dr. Rosenbach’s personal library on the third floor of the RML. Photo © Susan Beard.

The Free Library of Philadelphia plans to merge with The Rosenbach Museum & Library, which houses a rare book, fine art, and archival materials collection built around the personal library of noted dealers Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach and his brother Philip. The institutions signed a letter of intent following board approval by each of the organizations on April 16, nearly a year after the Rosenbach first approached the Free Library with the idea.

The resulting mouthful of a hybrid, The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation, will maintain “The Rosenbach of the Free Library” as an independent entity at its current Delancey Place location, the Free Library also announced. The rare book library will continue to be funded through private philanthropic support.

The Free Library and The Rosenbach have a long relationship, in fact dating back before The Rosenbach was founded as an institution: A.S.W. Rosenbach was a library trustee as well as donor and advisor to other donors of rare books to the Free Library.

The Façade of the Philadelphia Free Library

The Façade of the Philadelphia Free Library

Both sides enthused about the synergy between their collections, but the merger offers operational advantages as well. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Rosenbach laid off much of its staff in June, and is hoping the Free Library will “bulk up” its development capacity. “Part of the process is to create a nucleus fund to start building some of the positions back,” Siobhan A. Reardon, President and Director of the Free Library, told LJ. However, “they will never have to build back administration because we will handle that.” Reardon said the Free Library hopes to offer the Rosenbach its own strengths in facilities management, technologies, and cataloging, and learn from the Rosenbach’s strengths in curation and visitor education.

Reardon also confirmed that no one will lose their job as a result of the merger. Derick Dreher, Director of The Rosenbach Museum & Library, will report to Reardon, while the two organizations aim to maintain separate boards.

As part of the collection analysis process prior to the merger, the libraries have brought in auction houses to help evaluate their holdings, but Reardon emphasized that there are no current plans to deaccession. The special collections committee of the board is fine tuning the collection development policy, but Reardon did not anticipate any major changes to either the Free Library’s very broad mandate or the Rosebach’s more refined curatorial focus.

Arthur Spector, Chair, The Rosenbach Museum & Library Board of Trustees; Siobhan A. Reardon, President and Director, Free Library of Philadelphia; Tobey Dichter, Chair, Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation Board of Directors; Mayor Michael A. Nutter, City of Philadelphia; and Derick Dreher, John C. Haas Director, The Rosenbach Museum & Library gather under a portrait of A.S.W. Rosenbach following Wednesday’s announcement.

Arthur Spector, Chair, The Rosenbach Museum & Library Board of Trustees; Siobhan A. Reardon, President and Director, Free Library of Philadelphia; Tobey Dichter, Chair, Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation Board of Directors; Mayor Michael A. Nutter, City of Philadelphia; and Derick Dreher, John C. Haas Director, The Rosenbach Museum & Library.

Reardon says that though the financial due diligence, collections analysis, and “all of the top level review” has been completed, “this is where the lawyers start earning their money.” Between now and July 31 the institutions must hash out the details of the agreement, make sure they don’t contravene any of the wills or deeds of gift which established the two institutions, and have the arrangement vetted by the Pennsylvania Attorney General and Orphan’s Court, which reviews legacy documents. Assuming they sign off, Reardon anticipates that record keeping, human resource processes, and the rest of the back-end integration will be complete within a year.

Dreher agrees, but told LJ that “complicated projects like doing the cataloging” might take longer. While all the Rosenbach’s 150,000 fine and decorative arts holdings are already digitized, other items are only cataloged “to the folder level,” and others have old catalog records which need to be updated.

The merger will be made possible by a $3 million bridge fund “combining the generous support of many philanthropic partners over the next five years, including The Pew Charitable Trusts.” As of April 26, Reardon told LJ, the libraries had raised $1.65 million towards the fund.

“The Pew Charitable Trusts applauds the visionary leadership of these two venerable Philadelphia institutions, who made a bold decision that will protect some of the world’s most significant and rare works of literature,” said Rebecca Rimel, president and CEO of The Pew Charitable Trusts, an independent nonprofit whose mission includes public opinion research; arts and culture; and environmental, health, state and consumer policy initiatives. In the library world, they are perhaps best known for their subsidiary the Pew Research Center which supports, among others, the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Rimel continued, “Organizations entrusted with the wise stewardship of their mission and resources must be willing to make informed and difficult decisions that ensure the long-term success of their ventures, and this merger is an inspiring example of two leaders and their boards doing so to best serve the public interest.”

Just over a year ago, Pew released a report on the Philadelphia Free Library which concluded, among other things, that the library needed to refocus on providing basic services, even at the expense of interesting and high profile collections such as, presumably, the library’s extensive Rare Book Department.

But Reardon told LJ that the Free Library has no intention leaving special collections to the Rosenbach. “Libraries should be able to do both,” she said. “I like the idea of keeping them as two important venues [with] pretty unique materials; the goal is to put together more collaborative programming.”

First on the Rosenbach’s wishlist for such collaboration: “Sendak exhibitions at the Central Library on the Parkway,” Dreher told LJ. The Rosenbach has extensive Sendak holdings which it wants to expose to the “vast audience” already visiting the Central Library. Though moving them even temporarily will require the Rosenbach to get permission for the Sendak estate as well as make sure there is appropriate security and climate control, “this one of the few goals where we’ve said this is something we’ve got to get done,” Dreher said. Otherwise, he is trying not to get ahead of himself: there are “a lot of areas where we’re trying not to paint ourselves into a corner,” with premature specifics, he added.

However, one other collaboration is also definitely on the cards: Rosenbach materials will be discoverable in the Free Library catalog, and vice versa. Reardon informed the Rosenbach staff of this plan on April 17; one librarian’s response, she said, was “yahoo!”

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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  1. Catherine Michael says:

    I gasped when I read the headline! These are two of my favorite Philly institutions. I look forward to the fruits of the merger and plan to visit when in town.

  2. JudeGeorge says:

    I did not gasp at the news, but I headed to my medicine cabinet and took an assortment of pills. How will this affect Bloomsday? Will Free Library programming insist on approving or regulating the names of Bloomsday readers? Will Andy Bandy Andy Kahn get involved? Oh dear!