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Locals Know: Finding More Than Books at the Free Library of Philadelphia


Locals Know: Finding More Than Books at the Free Library of Philadelphia

*Our blogs are written by our actual, real tour guides. This post is brought to you by our guide and history-buff Dick.*

Philadelphia is full of hidden places to go exploring, but one of the best spots to visit might be the Free Library. Philadelphia’s storied public library system takes its name seriously, offering not just books but everything from free tours of the main branch to movie screenings and checking out musical instruments.Philadelphia has had a library in one form or another for almost three hundred years. In 1731, Benjamin Franklin and his colleagues in the Junto established the Library Company of Philadelphia, to pool their resources and purchase books. These days, Franklin’s Library Company is still here in Philadelphia, but you don’t need to pay 40 Pennsylvania shillings (or $312) to sit in their reading room. Franklin’s original library was humble, but its goal was monumental: Giving people access to new literature, and encouraging them to read.


What started as a way to get people reading has grown much bigger. Visiting the Parkway Central Branch of the Free Library is like taking a walk through history. The building that houses the library dates to 1927, but draws its design cues from a much older structure, the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris (built in 1758). From Monday to Saturday, you can take a free hour-long tour of the building at 10 a.m. to learn about the stunning collections of books and artifacts inside. The tour ends just in time for an 11-a.m. tour of my favorite place in the library: The Rare Books Department.

Why is Rare Books my favorite? It’s the only department of any library where you can find Charles Dickens’ pet raven, Grip. Dickens’ taxidermied pet bird is well known in Philadelphia for inspiring a resident wordsmith, Edgar Allen Poe, to write his now famous poem “The Raven” in 1845. In addition to the bird that tied them together, the Rare Books Department has collections of both Dickens’ and Poe’s handwritten letters, first drafts, and notes. They also have the only handwritten copy of “The Raven” known to exist. If you’re curious as to why so many of Poe’s writings are here in Philadelphia, visit his historic home in Spring Garden to find out!

But the Library is a lot more than a collection of old books. It’s a concert venue, a yoga studio, and a rooftop bar. Like many of Philadelphia’s historic spaces (the Bourse, the Curtis, and the Wanamaker Building to name a few), the Library has had to reinvent itself to thrive in our digital age. In the month of July, that includes hosting yoga classes on the roof on Saturday mornings. Taught by Roots2Rise, the yoga classes support a local nonprofit dedicated to bringing wellness into community libraries in Philadelphia.

In the evening, roll up those yoga mats and put on your opera glasses! On July 2nd, ENAensemble returns to the Library for the latest installment of their Serial Opera Project. Performing just one scene each month, July marks the fifth part of ENAensemble’s chamber opera about being stuck in an elevator. Music is a big part of the Library, from their previously mentioned Musical Instrument Collection (MIC) to their varied selection of vinyls. On July 24th, the library’s main lobby will be transformed into a concert hall, as a group of talented musicians perform the works of Bach, Handel and Escudero.

Feeling peckish? On July 13th at 1 p.m., the Library has a Southwest Asian cooking class in their Culinary Literacy Center. Joining traditional Middle Eastern recipes with cross-cultural dialogue, the class introduces learners to the ingredients and experiences of Middle Eastern refugees and immigrants in the US. Later in the month, the Culinary Literacy Center will host a class on cheese, examining the cross-cultural role that this delicious snack plays in our kitchens and our hearts.

In addition to yoga, music, or food, the Library is a fantastic place to hear an engaging lecture. On July 25th , the Library will host author and medical ethicist Harriet A. Washington for a lecture about her forthcoming book, A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind. Already an established scholar with such works as Medical Apartheid (2006) and Infectious Madness (2015), Washington’s latest book delves into the ways that racism can distort our societal perceptions of intelligence.

Whether it’s food, history, music, or current events, the Free Library of Philadelphia has something to pique anyone’s interest. Between rooftop yoga and hanging out with Dickens’ pet raven, you never know what you might find at the Library.


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