New Library Research Center

Charles Darwin’s chair. Hair from presidents. A quarter-million natural science books spanning five centuries. A rare, complete folio of John J. Audubon artworks.

The Academy Library and Archives is internationally recognized for its extraordinary collections. Now it is about to undergo a major change.

The Academy has embarked on a $7 million project to build a modernized Library Research Center where researchers can access the collections in a safe, secure, and environmentally controlled space. The new center will transform office and storage areas on the second and third floors, adjacent and encompassing part of the current library and archives, into a two-story suite.

Portraits of the Academy’s founders lend character to the Reading Room, built in 1910. Photo by M. Fischetti for Visit Philadelphia™

The new center’s reading room will be equipped with improved lighting, security, safety systems, and appropriate temperature and humidity controls. A new collaborative work area for Academy staff will be added, including an updated imaging center for the continued digitization of materials in the collections.

The current rare book room will be upgraded and enlarged to offer improved storage for the rare books collection—one of the finest collections of rare natural history publications in the U.S.

“The Academy has supported the growth, care, and development of the Library and Archives’ collections for more than two centuries,” says Ted Daeschler, PhD, associate curator of vertebrate zoology, who is overseeing the Library Research Center project. “And we are committed to the responsible stewardship of these treasures for future generations.”

Darwin's Chair
Charles Darwin sat here—on the chair, not in the rare book room where the chair was located.

On Oct. 1 the library closed to researchers and the general public, who previously were invited to enjoy the artworks and exhibitions in the Reading Room on weekday afternoons. From now until January, every single object—the chair, the hair, the rare books, and so much more—is being lovingly packed and gingerly moved to a secure on-site or off-site location.

So how’s that going?

“The library and archives hold such diverse collections—books, artwork, historic scientific equipment, documents, photographs, and more—all of which need special handling and care,” said Jennifer Vess, the Academy’s Brooke Dolan archivist who’s helping organize the move. “A 400-year-old book is very different from a 150-year-old glass lantern slide, but both are delicate and irreplaceable.”

Over the next three months, Vess and the staff will be working with outside experts in art handling, the renovation of cultural institutions, and the moving of large collections.

“Every step is planned and precise so that we can protect every book and piece of paper, and so that we can hopefully access at least parts of our collections for researchers even during the renovation,” Vess said.

A lock of George Washington’s hair from one of the “hair albums” in the archives.
















Construction is scheduled to begin in January 2018 with the new Library Research Center to open in mid- to late-2019. Library and Archives staff will provide limited access to materials for researchers starting January 2018. Drexel’s College of Medicine’s Legacy Center has invited the Academy to store many of its collections there and will assist in making them accessible. (Check for updates.)

So what will become of the current, grand Library Reading Room?

Visitors no doubt will miss their afternoon strolls around the beautiful space, under the watchful gaze of the Academy’s founders and past presidents framed on the walls.

For the next two years, they won’t be able to witness the gloved librarian lift the glass off Audubon’s The Birds of America at 3:15 to turn the oversized page to another eye-popping hand-painted bird in flight.

But what we can all look forward to in place of those unique experiences is a new 3,000-square-foot exhibition gallery that retains the rich historic character and stellar architectural details of the original reading room. In the new gallery, visitors will be able explore the natural world in a wholly new and exciting way. Plans are still under wraps as details and fundraising continue to advance.

We’ll keep you posted!

Meanwhile, if you would like to support this important project, please contact Monica Cawvey Gallagher, Academy vice president of Institutional Advancement, at


Post by Carolyn Belardo








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