The work of a library carries on even when most of us are primarily working from home. Here at the Penn Libraries, my colleagues and I recently closed out a fantastic week of acquisitions work worth sharing from the comforts of home.

During the final week of October curators and area studies librarians here at Penn worked together to acquire an array of unique manuscripts from around the world at three different sales. One of the joys of working at the Penn Libraries are the wonderful and talented colleagues who enable us to have a truly global collecting scope. Thanks to these colleagues, in the space of a few days we were able to work together to build on Penn’s collection strengths and acquire important materials for teaching and research. 

Pennsylvania veterinary formulary, mid-19th century (Swann Galleries)


The Penn Libraries are home to a large and important collection of manuscript remedy books as well as significant materials related to the history of equine medicine. On Tuesday October 27th at a New York sale we acquired a regional mid-nineteenth-century manuscript formulary of equine veterinary cures from East Earl, Pennsylvania, which is near Lancaster. My colleague Lynne Farrington notes that it is important for the insights it provides into the treatment of horses during this period. She relates that one fascinating recipe is for “How to make the drops to make old horses young, or Get up and Howl!” with the following ingredients: cantharides (Spanish fly), fenugreek, and lots of brandy.

Short stories and tales in Gujarati, c. 1809 (Chiswick Auctions)

Two days later, on Thursday the 29th, the Libraries were fortunate enough to acquire two South Asian manuscripts in London which had been available to researchers in the United States during the twentieth century before being sold in the 1990s by their holding institution. Bringing manuscripts with this kind of provenance back into use by scholars is an important function of a research library, especially one such as ours which is world renowned for its South Asian manuscript collections. My colleague Jef Pierce, our South Asia studies librarian, notes that Penn’s existing holdings of these materials consist primarily of Sanskrit manuscripts so these two new acquisitions in Telugu and Gujarati bring greater linguistic diversity to the collection, and further expand its literary representation. The Telugu manuscript is a late 18th or early 19th century rendition of the Āmuktamālyada (Giver of the Worn Garland), an epic poem attributed to Krishnadevaraya, a 16th century ruler of the Vijayanagara Empire. Considered a masterpiece of Telugu composition, it relays in vivid detail the passionate devotion of poet-saint Goda Devi (also known as Andal) to Lord Vishnu. Serving as a prime example of premodern Vaishnava literature in South India, it offers apt literary comparison to the Sanskrit court poetry already typified by the collection. Similarly, the Gujarati manuscript acquired at the same sale presents vernacular versions of popular narratives, contrasting the Sanskrit register of similar works like the Pañcatantra. Comprising a three-volume set written by various Munshis in 1809, it includes numerous short stories and moral tales, and may have been commissioned as a Gujarati reader for a European scholar. Both of these manuscripts are written on British watermarked paper, demonstrating the increasing global exchange of the colonial period.

Eighteenth Century copy of the Qur’an from what is today Indonesia (Bloomsbury Auctions)

On Friday October 30th, the day after our success with South Asian materials, we made two exciting new acquisitions in the world of Arabic manuscripts thanks to the enthusiasm and sharp eyes of Heather Hughes (Middle East area studies librarian) and Kelly Tuttle (Project cataloger for Islamicate manuscripts). First, an 18th century copy (dated 1717 CE / 1130 A.H) of Dustūr al-adwiyah (دستور الادوية) by Dāwūd ibn Abī al Bayān al-Isrāʾīlī (d. c. 1236). A collection of herbal remedies, this copy of the work was made by Ilyās ibn ʿAbd Allāh al-Nāṣirī , a Christian physician working at the Ṣalāḥī hospital in Jerusalem. He also kept notes about the treatments in the margins of the work. This copy complements Penn’s strong holdings in the history of science and medicine as well as its small but growing collection of Islamicate medical theory and treatment books. These include, among others, a medical recipe book similar in style to this new acquisition in Ottoman Turkish acquired last year (Ms. Codex 1998), and one in Persian dealing specifically with Ayurvedic medicine (CAJS Rar Ms 214) both of which have been digitized through the ongoing CLIR-funded Manuscripts of the Muslim World grant project. In addition to this medical work, we also acquired a decorated copy of the Qur’an from Indonesia, the country currently home to the world’s largest Muslim population (pictured above). This copy, likely from the 18th century, has three sets of colorful, dual-page illuminations in a style distinctly different from Qur’an copies produced in Persia, India, or the Ottoman lands. It is an important and useful addition for our faculty who teach the global history of Islam and its manuscript traditions.