The planned alliance of Philadelphia's rare-book collectors' mecca - the Rosenbach Museum and Library - with the Free Library of Philadelphia could mean greater access to literary treasures, in much the same way as the Barnes Foundation art masterpieces' move downtown. Even better, the library merger looks to bring nothing like the messy, emotionally wrenching legal battles surrounding the Barnes' move.
The ease of the union can be credited, in large part, to the foresight of the Rosenbach founders, who established their legacy under a reasonable and flexible bequest wholly unlike the Barnes' strict directives. Along with his brother, Philip, the antiquarian book dealer A.S.W. Rosenbach allowed for the possibility that the collection housed in their 1860s townhouses on Delancey Place might be placed in trust at another institution, or even broken up.
Beyond that, fast-forward to today, when stewards of both the Rosenbach and the Free Library have devised a merger that's winning widespread support. How so? Because the Rosenbach collection - including a treasure trove of Maurice Sendak drawings and James Joyce's original manuscript of Ulysses - isn't really going anywhere.
If the Rosenbach receives the likely official blessing to become a subsidiary of the library by June 30, the plan first and foremost is to see that it's put on firmer financial footing after having had to lay off staff last year. Over several years, a transition fund with a $3 million goal would be raised by both Rosenbach and Free Library Foundation trustees.
At the same time, though, the two institutions will be able to begin thinking about showcasing some of the Rosenbach collection at the Free Library's main branch. Up to a million visitors a year could experience the Rosenbach's gems in the renovated exhibition space being created for the rare-books department,.
Free Library president and director Siobhan Reardon and Derick Dreher, director of the Rosenbach, wisely have steered clear of any controversy similar to the fierce objection by fans of the Barnes' original Merion home to the collection being moved.
With fund-raising, though, the library marriage could use a little Barnes magic. The Barnes move had heavyweight foundation support, whereas the Free Library hasn't been a fund-raising juggernaut. It had to scale back grand expansion plans, but its current focus on renovation and a more modest expansion make it a worthy partner for patrons to assist with the Rosenbach union.
The merger itself seems to echo the plot from The Mouse That Roared, where the ruler of the near-bankrupt Duchy of Grand Fenwick decides to declare war on America so it can receive generous, postwar foreign aid after certain defeat.
But no hostilities were needed to force this peace. The smaller Rosenbach stands to prosper under its new ally, while the Free Library will not only enhance its rare-book holdings, but also afford them greater public access. That's a win for both institutions and the city's cultural scene.