Introducing myself as a rare book librarian is usually a fun move at parties. Even people who haven’t been to a library in decades often have questions, and there is nothing I love more as a rare book librarian at the Free Library of Philadelphia than getting people excited about our collections. This week, when it was revealed that our copy of William Shakespeare’s First Folio is likely to have been annotated by poet John Milton, there was plenty to be delighted about.

It’s exactly the kind of story a librarian thrills to read: Dr. Claire M.L. Bourne, the scholar who wrote about the annotations in the Library’s Folio, has engaged deeply and thoughtfully with our First Folio for years. Dr. Jason Scott-Warren read her article and was struck by the similarity of the handwriting to Milton, doing quick work to collect comparative examples. He is now working closely with Dr. Bourne to continue their research.

But within 24 hours of the Milton news breaking, I was disappointed by a mention in an early (and since-corrected) news report that our First Folio “languished in obscurity.”

It’s a common frustration among librarians: If there’s a news report somewhere about a rare book in a library, chances are good it includes “hidden” in the headline. (Ask #LibraryTwitter about it sometime.) That may make for exciting copy, but it ignores the hard work of library workers and our existing community of users.

Here’s the reality: The Free Library has housed this work since 1944 and it is regularly on display (most recently in 2014, when the library celebrated Shakespeare’s 450th birthday), put out for public programs and school visits, and studied by researchers.

A rare book that appears to have been owned by "Paradise Lost" poet John Milton, at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Vine Street, in Philadelphia, September 17, 2019.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
A rare book that appears to have been owned by "Paradise Lost" poet John Milton, at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Vine Street, in Philadelphia, September 17, 2019.

Rare book libraries are not your grandmother’s attic. Of course, we have old books on shelves. But everything in our collections is there to be used and librarians are here to help you use it.

A library is not some neutral temple of knowledge; the library’s very existence is a political statement that makes claims about the value of learning and the importance of inclusion. Rare book librarians collect so that the story of our shared cultural heritage can be told.

Sometimes that means by responding to an amazing scholarly discovery by scrambling to get a “First Folio and Milton” exhibit up so that Philadelphia can get an up-close look at some extremely special old handwriting.

But it’s not all caffeine and exhibition labels.

I just recently picked up a museum loan from the rare book department of a few paintings and a nearly 200-year-old handwritten Quran from the Please Touch Museum, where they had been on view for a few thousand preschoolers (and their families) exploring Muslim culture around the world.

We want our collections to get as wide and as broad an audience as possible. As charming as that vintage card catalog in your living room is, it’s probably easier to explore our collections with an online search – created and sustained by library workers. We love when researchers come to visit us, but we also recognize that the ability to visit a rare book library should not be a barrier, so we work collaboratively to create free digital surrogates of books and exhibitions that can be viewed online. We have a special trunk (it’s on wheels, very glamorous) for filling with special collections objects to travel to schools, retirement homes, and other locations with people who might want to touch some old books.

It might be easy to envision a rare book department as a dusty old repository where secret treasures are buried in shadowy corners. But our collections don’t languish in obscurity. They are living documents with rich histories that we’re still uncovering today. I can’t wait to hear about what you find next.

Caitlin Goodman is the curator of the Free Library’s rare book department.