In mid-January, in the midst of moving 13,000 linear feet of manuscripts during the renovation of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Penn, I received an e-mail from an agent at Pickering & Chatto, a London-based antiquarian bookseller. He was writing to offer me advance notice of two volumes of daily books and regulations relating to an asylum house for young girls that was set up in London in 1758. Having just taken the items on consignment, the dealer suspected that Penn might be interested, because the year before I had purchased a two-volume register that contains biographical data and physical details of over 6,000 female inmates of New Bailey Prison in Salford from 1851 to 1859. The dealer was right: I was intrigued and felt confident that others at Penn would be excited to have this research material available. Penn professors Toni Bowers and Michael Gamer responded quickly and enthusiastically to the potential acquisition, and Cheryl Nixon, who had recently published a book on orphans and the English novel, confirmed the difficulty of finding original manuscript records for this type of orphan institution.
It is one thing to locate an interesting manuscript for sale, but quite another to pay for it. When quoted the asking price, I almost abandoned the prospect, but after confirming interest in the material, I decided to have a frank discussion with the dealer about payments. He accepted a multi-year schedule, so I made the commitment to the item, knowing that I would explore special funding opportunities. The B. H. Breslauer Foundation, a generous and thoughtful sponsor of several manuscript acquisitions for Penn’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library over the past five years, stepped up again. This grant was followed by monies cobbled together by combining the collections’ general operating budget with endowed and discretionary funds, such as the Orrery Society Fund and the Althea K. Hottel and Abraham S. Hottel, Jr. Fund. I was then able to negotiate a small reduction in price, since all payments would be made within a few months.
A manuscript that originates in Great Britain cannot be exported without a license, and sometimes it is denied. For the asylum records the export license was ultimately granted (it took several months), but a photocopy was made by the British Library before the volumes were released. I was on vacation when the package finally arrived, and by the time I returned Assistant Curator of Manuscripts Amey Hutchins had cataloged the manuscripts and passed them on to our digitization team . A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities enables us to make digital facsimiles of the library’s European and American manuscripts from 1601 to 1800. A full facsimile of these materials was produced within a few days. So after a hundred years of inaccessibility, these records can be examined either in person in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library or virtually on the World Wide Web.
As previous postings about this acquisition demonstrate, we anticipate that these records will hold great interest across a range of fields extending from labor law to culinary history and from sociology to English literature.
Marissa Hendriks, Chris Lippa, Craig Taylor, Alex Jordan, and Tori Collins.