Read Up on Philly’s Literary History

From Edgar Allan Poe’s house to Benjamin Franklin’s first library, these sites are a bookworm’s dream.

Philadelphia’s literary heritage runs deep. For bibliophiles, a tour of the city offers the chance to explore everything from the country’s first public library to the former home of one of America’s most celebrated authors to a depository for some of the world’s most renowned and rare books and manuscripts. Here’s a guide to can’t-miss literary sites around town.

The Library Company of Philadelphia

In the early Colonial days, books were hard to come by; they had to be shipped from Europe, and if they were available, they were expensive. When Benjamin Franklin founded the Library Company in 1731, the subscription-based institution became America’s first successful lending library, finally making reading materials accessible to ordinary citizens. For more than 100 years, the Library Company was the largest public library in the country. The site is still open to the public and houses an extensive collection of books, manuscripts, photographs and more. It is widely hailed for its works on everything from medicine to economics and women’s history. 1314 Locust St., 215.546.3181, librarycompany.org

Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site

One of the most prolific mystery writers in American history lived in Philadelphia for six years, beginning in 1838. It was here that he penned some of his most famous works, like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Gold-Bug,” and “The Mask of the Red Death.” Today, his former home just north of Spring Garden Street is a historic site managed by the National Park Service. Visitors tour on their own or with a guide, listen to Poe’s works put to music by artists like Lou Reed and the Alan Parsons Project, explore his recreated reading room and learn about the life of the man credited with inventing the modern detective story. 532 N. 7th St., nps.gov/edal

Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site

Free Library of Philadelphia, Parkway Central Branch

The exquisite exterior of the Beaux-Arts building that serves as the Free Library of Philadelphia, Parkway Central Branch is only a prelude to the literary treasures residing inside. Set amidst the world-class cultural attractions lining the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, this site has served as the hub of Philly’s public library system since 1927, a network that now includes 54 locations across the city. Visitors explore departments specializing in everything from the culinary arts to philosophy and music. Free guided tours highlight collections like architecture and history and even include the option to visit the intriguing Rare Book Department. 1901 Vine St., 215.686.5322, freelibrary.org

Free Library of Philadelphia, Parkway Central Branch

The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia

Located in a 1860s-era row house just off Rittenhouse Square, this site preserves one of the world’s most robust collections of manuscripts, literature and rare books. Within its walls find treasures ranging from James Joyce’s handwritten manuscript for “Ulysses” to Bram Stoker’s notes and outlines for “Dracula” to a rare first edition of Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.” The charming National Literary Landmark also features an extensive collection of manuscripts, correspondence and personal items that once belonged to modernist poet Marianne Moore; her Greenwich Village living room in New York has been recreated as a permanent installation. 2008-2010 Delancey Place, 215.732.1600, rosenbach.org

The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia

Fisher Fine Arts Library

Stepping inside of this library is like entering a cathedral dedicated to the written word. Located on the University of Pennsylvania campus in West Philadelphia, the National Historic Landmark is a treat for anyone with an affinity for literature. Philadelphia architect Frank Furness designed the building in the 1890s, incorporating ornate and thoughtful touches like stained glass windows with literary quotes, spiral staircases, carved wall details and soaring vaulted ceilings. While access to the library is restricted to Penn students and faculty on the weekends, the building is open to the public weekdays. Handouts with information on the structure, its history and its contents provide background for an exploration of the magnificent space. After looking around, settle into the cavernous four-story reading room, prominently featured in the film “Philadelphia.220 S. 34th St., 215.898.8325, library.upenn.edu/finearts

Amy Gordon
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