21 million items at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania offer the wonder of possibilities

Bethany Chisholm
Favorite Spot: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Neighborhood: Midtown Village
Address: 1300 Locust St. Philadelphia, PA 19107

I am: A Boston transplant, eager to fall in love with a new city.
Years in Philly: 10 months

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My Love Note:

When I moved to Philadelphia from Boston, I was like my fellow mass of 20-somethings: post college, pre-career, and completely freaked out. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, besides (hopefully) use my English degree to work in the arts and culture sector. To gain some experience, I took an internship in the Development Department of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP). I figured it would be interesting, and hey, I love history.

My main job here has been organizing a fundraising event for the “Young Friends” group in a couple of weeks. I chose a Mad Men theme because anyone I’ve ever met with Netflix loves Don Draper and an old-fashioned. One of the activities will be a scavenger hunt based on our library’s collection of mid-century advertisements; consequently, I’ve spent hours combing through our digitized archives. While searching for the right ads, I’ve realized how valuable HSP truly is, and how many historians, genealogists, scholars, and students can and do benefit from this institution.

I had a chance to see all of these beneficiaries on our grand reopening day this past October. Throughout most of my internship, I only knew HSP by its employee entrance on the side of the building, and my makeshift desk made of drywall. But that day, I too saw the library’s complete transformation after seven months of rigorous renovations.

As the public streamed in through our beautiful new foyer, there was a sense of awe. Many visitors were new, or had walked by the building “hundreds of times,” never knowing what was inside. They were met with a special document display for the occasion, showcasing some of our collection’s best treasures including the first handwritten draft the United States’ Constitution, and life portraits of William and Hannah Penn. They could go on tours inside the formidable vaults, and talk to the staff that preserves and digitizes our documents, and get an introduction on how to research in the library.

I worked the registration desk that day, and something that struck me was the constant question of, “What else can we do?” After exhausting the day’s activities, visitors still wanted more. They wanted to see everything HSP had to offer because they were excited about the possibilities, and that, to me, is the essence of this city.

Something I find unique to Philadelphia is that it’s a living history. The old and new are seamlessly intertwined and unquestioned. There is a proud acceptance of who we are and from where we came—and where we’re going. I think this sentiment is so profoundly echoed in what researchers and family genealogists come to HSP to do. They seek tangible evidence of their past, and in doing so, find wholeness in their present selves.

I feel that wholeness taking shape every day that I intern here. I find it worthy and a vital part of our human identity; and as such, this Young Friends event is important to me. What began as a fun internship has become my own small way to contribute to my new city, and hopefully help future patrons find what they seek.

Editors Note (i.e. Emma’s Note): Going to HSP to meet Bethany and see the collection was one of the highlights of this year’s love notes. I saw one of the first handwritten drafts of the constitution, and the first photo ever taken in the US, and a handwritten account of George Washington’s death. All those things (and 21 million more) are there waiting to be discovered. I’ll be going to the Young Friends cocktail party because all proceeds go towards HSP’s program to repair, restore, and digitize items from the collection (and also becuase it’ll be cool). If you’re interested in joining, the event will take place on November 21st, 2013 from 6-8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased here (https://madmencocktail.eventbrite.com/), or if you have any questions about this event or HSP, please feel free to contact Bethany at bchisholm@hsp.org

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(handwritten account of George Washington’s death)

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(first photo taken in the US — of Central High School)

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