The Rosenbach is a stunning library hidden in plain sight in the heart of Philadelphia. Tucked away on a gorgeous residential block, the somewhat unassuming pair of buildings that comprise its facility are actually home to one of the most impressive collections of rare books and manuscripts in the entire world. James Joyce’s manuscript for Ulysses, Bram Stoker’s handwritten notes for Dracula, a first edition of A Pilgrim’s Progress, the world’s largest collection of Robert Burns’s manuscripts, an incredibly rare Bay Psalm Book, and original copies of the William Henry Ireland Shakespeare forgeries are just a very few examples of the gems that live in this place. Pick a famous literary or historical icon from 1450 to 1900 and chances are they are represented in this collection in some way. The Rosenbach is a museum with rotating exhibitions that have some of the materials on view, and you can also take a tour of the historic house that belonged to the Rosenbach brothers—the collectors responsible for all this bibliophilia. The undisputed highlight is the 19th-century library where the Ulysses manuscript sits casually on a shelf behind delicate glass doors.
As an added bonus, the library was chosen to be the caretaker of the works of late, great author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. And is home to the writing desk of Stephen Colbert.
Possibly the coolest feature of the library is its hands-on tours. A number of tours are offered, each with a different theme, and a staff member will actually bring out pieces for visitors to touch and feel, all while providing fascinating information about their background, historical significance, etc. Going one better, if you are local and interested in spending some up close and personal time with one of their books, you can make an appointment to do that. For free.
Besides the books, the museum also features the Rosenbach’s home, a mansion located on one of the most prestigious blocks in the city. In the house’s drawing-room, portraits of the family and their associates (including the family Sully portrait of Rebecca Gratz). Just outside is an ancient Greek kouros and Yellin wrought iron doors, and in the dining room a magnificent chandelier. Also in the collection is an amulet with the name of Nebuchadnezzar, a Bonaparte hair comb, and more than 1,000 portrait miniatures. In the library, preserved immaculately in its entirety, is the living room of Marianne Moore, complete with a cardboard cutout of Moore peeking out from a closet.
Whether you have some time to kill in a really pretty part of the city or want to spend a day (or several) poring over one of Doyle’s manuscripts for Sherlock Holmes or a first edition of Phyllis Wheatley, you can do it here.
Know Before You Go
Just a few blocks from Rittenhouse square in Philadelphia, the Rosenbach is comprised of two brick townhouses on a residential block.