Digging in the Archives: Swarthmore College’s Friends Historical Library

McCabe Library at Swarthmore College. Photo: Naomi Wood.

My time here at Winterthur is wrapping up. I took yesterday to visit two incredible local institutions, the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College, and the Chester County Historical Society. I only wish I had more time, but as any researcher knows, one can really collect information, photos of documents, and references until you are blue in the face. Until you really analyze and share what you have in a lasting way (not just a “I saw a document somewhere, if I remember correctly” kind of way), your work doesn’t mean much. So today and tomorrow are writing days.

It was kind of funny visiting Swarthmore College. School is out, so the campus was mostly deserted, except for day campers for the Chester Children’s Choir and prospective students on admissions tours. I wended my way through the unmarked buildings (right! most buildings on this campus of 50 or so buildings have no signs) and found the library by chance, because it had been left off the first campus map I consulted. But I found the very helpful staff of the Friends Historical Library just inside the door of McCabe Library, as well as several student assistants who were working on descriptions and transcriptions of archival material. Nothing like a captive student population for labor needs at a college-based archive or museum.

I was there to see a short gown with a block-printed lining, as well as a scrapbook of fabrics assembled by Rachel Griscom in 1872. Several of the fabrics had 18th century family provenances, but she also preserved cloth which she identified as being worn by enslaved people near Winchester, Virginia. The samples were certainly 19th century, but it was an interesting item. During my visit, one of the librarians walked in with a surveyor’s chain (also in the collection) and quizzed the student workers, “What’s this?” He was preparing a number of materials for Surveyors Rendezvous (I kid you not, this is the name of the event hosted by several mid-Atlantic surveying professional organizations).  The Friends Historical Society has a quirky and valuable collection for 18th and 19th century regional research and very accommodating staff.