Library Company will continue going digital despite departure of director Van Horne

The director of the Library Company of Philadelphia has announced he is stepping down next year.

For 28 years, John Van Horne has been overseeing the Library Company of Philadelphia, America’s first lending library. Right now the 282 year-old institution on Locust Street is exhibiting objects which were never meant to be preserved: 19th century newspapers, flyers, advertisements, and toys.

“Here we have a jigsaw puzzle on which are mounted images of various buildings that were in the Centennial Exhibition, held in Fairmount Park in 1876,” said Van Horne, looking through a glass case in the Library’s front exhibition room. “And here’s a board game, integrating images of people in the 19th century.”

This set of historical ephemera is a small part of the approximately 650,000 books and objects the Library Company has collected since 1785. During his tenure as director, Van Horne has organized and promoted certain aspects of that vast collection, like books and documents pertaining to early American economics, and African-American documents.

He has also dragged the centuries-old library into the 21st century. Van Horne started in 1985 with one of the first commerically available word processors and no fax machines. That came later. Now, he is digitizing whole sections of the archive and putting them online.

“Scanning the complete contents of about 12,000 books and pamphlets in our African-American history collection,” said Van Horne. “This is going to take years because it’s millions of pages, but when it’s complete, the entirety of our AfricanAmerican history colletion will be entirely online and word-searchable.”

Van Horne will leave the library next year, in May 2014. The historian says he will spend his time focusing on his own scholarly research. “I’ve worked mostly in early American history, on projects concerning Benjamin Franklin, the early engineer and architect Benjamin Latrobe, and then other projects dealing with aspects of African-American history, railroad history, and disparate themes.”

He says his successor will have to continue ot push the library onto digital formats, and expand the home of the physical collection into the empty adjacent building, which the Company already owns.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.