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About the Penn Museum Library

Students look at special collection folios in the Museum Library

About the Penn Museum Library

With over 145,000 volumes on-site, the Penn Museum Library is one of the world’s largest research collections for anthropology and archaeology. Its collections include publications on archaeology throughout the world, biological anthropology, cultural and linguistic anthropology, and medical anthropology, as well as archaeological sciences and cultural heritage management. As part of the Penn Libraries, its collections, services, and facilities aim to support education and research in the University of Pennsylvania’s Anthropology Department and closely affiliated departments, research centers, and graduate groups, as well as the mission of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, but the Museum Library is open to members of the public for independent college-level research during Penn Museum Hours.

History of the Penn Museum Library

Now one of the world’s premier anthropology and archaeology museums, the Penn Museum began in 1887 as a small collection of curios packed into cabinets in the then University of Pennsylvania Library, now the Fisher Fine Arts Library. The Penn Museum moved into its current building at the corner of 33rd and South Streets in 1898, and the Penn Museum Library was created shortly afterwards.

After the death of Daniel Garrison Brinton, Professor of American Archaeology and Linguistics at the University from 1886 until 1898, the Penn Museum received his personal library of 4,098 volumes. The Brinton collection focuses on linguistic and ethnohistorical study of indigenous groups in the Americas and includes a magnificent collection of 183 items assembled by Carl Hermann Berendt, a German physician who spent most of the mid-19th century traveling in southern Mexico and Central America. These items were the first to be housed in the Elkins Library Room when it was set up in 1900.

For more than 40 years, the library collections developed unsystematically through donations by staff or museum patrons, exchanges with institutions around the world, and acquisitions made while researchers were on archaeological or ethnographic expeditions. The growing book and journal collections shared the Elkins Library Room with the Penn Museum's numismatics collections, random artworks, and furniture. In the Museum Library’s first few decades, there was one part-time librarian, and use of the library was restricted to Museum staff and a few scholars.

In 1942, Cynthia Griffin was appointed as the first full-time Museum Librarian. At the time of her appointment, the collection contained approximately 16,000 volumes, many of them uncatalogued, and circulation was approximately 1,000 volumes annually. Miss Griffin reorganized the library, opened it to student use, and expanded publications exchanges with institutions around the world. The Museum Library now began a period of rapid growth, aided in no small part by the establishment of the Vaillant Book Fund, founded in honor of former Penn Museum Director George C. Vaillant, which continues to support library acquisitions for anthropology and archaeology. When Griffin retired in 1971, the collection had grown to more than 50,000 volumes, the staff to two full-time assistants, and circulation to more than 14,000 volumes a year. The collection had been completely cataloged, but collections growth over the years had limited space for patrons to only two tables that could accommodate only 16 people.

In October 1971, the Museum Library moved to its present quarters, occupying 12,000 square feet on three levels of the new Academic Wing, where the library has a dramatic view into the Egyptian Gallery. John and Ada H.H. Lewis provided a major gift toward the building and furnishing of the library when the new wing of the Museum was being constructed. At the same time, Jean Adelman succeeded Griffin as Museum Librarian, and the library received its first photocopy machine and electric typewriter, and, for the first time, it was open for use after 5 p.m. to any interested researcher or student. Penn Libraries also took over the administration of the Museum Library fully. Under Adelman’s direction and with the help of library staff, the Museum Library developed into one of the top anthropology libraries in the United States.

After Adelman’s retirement in 1997, Dr. John M. Weeks, Ph.D., who had previously worked at Harvard’s Tozzer Library, became Head of the Museum Library. He continued the work of making the Mesoamerican collection at the Museum Library one of the finest in the country until his own retirement in 2015. As a part of this effort, with funding from the Foundation for Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI), the Museum Library staff developed Bibliografica Mesoamericana, which became the largest and most widely accessed scholarly resource on ancient and modern Mesoamerican cultures. FAMSI also supported the partial digitization of the Mesoamerican linguistic and historical manuscripts from the Berendt-Brinton Collection. In 2005, a fund was established in honor of ethnographer and Penn Museum consultant Elisabeth J. Tooker to benefit the library's anthropology collections, and the memorial fund has been important for growing the Museum Library’s collections in support of Native American and Indigenous Studies at Penn.

In December 2016, Dr. Deborah Brown Stewart was appointed Head of the Museum Library. Facing overcrowded stacks, an aging facility, outdated furnishings, and declines in student use, she worked on phased upgrades to the physical spaces including new furniture, lighting, and electrical power, and she initiated multiple programs such as exhibits, workshops, and informal talks that successfully re-engaged student and faculty interest during her first three years. She continued to build on collections strengths in ancient Mesoamerica and Egyptology and also began to strengthen collections for new trends in cultural anthropology, Native North American studies, archaeological sciences, classical archaeology, museology, and the use of emerging digital technologies in the anthropological subfields in order to realign collections development with growing needs of the University’s faculty and students, and the Penn Museum.

Then, as the world struggled with the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, the reinvigorated Museum Library was forced to close its doors in March 2020. Demand for the Museum Library’s premier print collections was high, and consequently, under careful protocols designed according to evolving public health and University guidance, Museum Library staff were among the first library staff to return to campus in June 2020 and restored services to students and researchers through scanning, expanded Books by Mail services, and interlibrary loans. The Museum Library reopened its doors to patrons in August 2021.

As we look to the future, a major goal of the Museum Library is to make our collections and Penn Libraries’ services even more responsive to the evolving needs of faculty, students, and researchers. In addition to acquiring print monographs and journals, collections funds in support of anthropology are used to select ebooks, journals, and streaming video, as well as to offer support for innovative models of open-access and digital publishing in anthropology and archaeology. The Museum Library staff collaborate with colleagues in the Penn Libraries’ Center for Global Collections to ensure that the on-site collections truly represent cultural and linguistic diversity that lie at the heart of Penn Museum and Penn Anthropology’s research and educational missions.