In a city steeped deeply in history and culture, it should come as no surprise that almost all the libraries of Philadelphia have stories that are as historically rich as the materials within the buildings. In addition to some noteworthy backgrounds, these institutions offer a wealth of resources. The chance to self-educate, many times for free, is all around the city at libraries boasting special programs, classes and exhibits, along with opportunities to view rare manuscripts and conduct research. From America’s oldest cultural institution to one of the nation’s leading family history libraries, this list offers an education on the best libraries Philadelphia has to offer.
The Library Company of Philadelphia
Price: Free and open to the public
Hours: Reading room/gallery: Mon to Fri — 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.; Print Room: By Appointment
One of the last independent research libraries that’s free and open to the public, the Library Company of Philadelphia is an undiscovered gem. Specializing in American history and culture, the Library Company has its own rich American history, having served as the Library of Congress from the Revolutionary War up to the year 1800, the largest public library in the country until the Civil War, and currently America’s oldest cultural institution since its foundation in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin. This institute exemplifies the historical qualities of Philadelphia itself. It remains dedicated to the cause it was established for, with free access to its many collections, public programming and special exhibits.
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Free Library of Philadelphia
Parkway Central Library
1901 Vine St
Philadelphia, PA 19103
Price: Free to those who live, work, go to school, or pay taxes in Philadelphia, as well as for 65+, veterans, military, and Access PA stickerholders / $35 for out-of-state visitors
Hours: Sun – 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., Mon to Thurs – 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fri – 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sat – 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Click here for a full list of branch locations and hours.
With over 7 million items and special collections in the building, this is a one-stop shop for all the literary needs one could have, and then some. While the Central Library is the cornerstone of the Free Library of Philadelphia, adding their resources into the mix as well are 54 other branches throughout the area. Visitors and members alike will find an array of music, books, periodicals, maps, prints and more that cover just about any topic under the sun. After-school and adult education classes are just a few of the special programs that are free to members. Additionally, there is a free career center, rare book department, library for the blind and a choral music library, which is available for an extra fee.
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania Library
1300 Locust St.
Philadelphia, PA 19107
Price: Free to Members and Students grades 6-12, Adults – $8, College Students – $5
Hours: Mon – Closed, Tues – 12:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., Wed – 12:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., Thurs – 12:30 to 5:30 p.m., Fri – 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
If anyone is looking for a long-lost family member or perhaps their distant connection to a Founding Father, the best destination in Philadelphia is one of the largest family history libraries in the country, located at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania. For those interested in historic Philadelphia and Pennsylvania area information, there is also a wealth of it in these collections, along with 350 years-worth of materials on the nation’s founding that is second only to the Library of Congress. Known as a resource for ethnic and immigrant studies items, other highlights of the some 21 million holdings include the first draft of the Constitution and a letter by George Washington.
University of Pennsylvania – Van Pelt Library
3420 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104
Hours: Mon to Fri – 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Open to the Public
Evenings and weekends may be reserved for the University of Pennsylvania community, but on weekdays, this library opens its arms to the public. For a quiet place to study, read, research or get some work done, the Van Pelt Library is a top location to head to. With collections on every topic anyone can major in, this is an unbeatable free resource with the option to pay for material rentals and reproduction. A cafe inside gives visitors no reason to leave, so as long as guests to the library bring their photo identification, Van Pelt promises a sanctuary free of distractions but full of information, from a rare books room to microforms.
Wagner Free Institute of Science Library
1700 W Montgomery Ave
Philadelphia, PA 19121
Hours: Tues to Fri – 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Appointment required
Wagner is primarily a scientific materials library with collections on education, natural and physical sciences, medicine, archaeology, engineering, anthropology, instrument building and pseudo-sciences. With documents spanning the late 17th to the early 20th century, these resources are an intense option for serious science researchers. Along with the library, however, there is a free science museum and public programming focused on education. Alternatively, after exploring Wagner’s offerings, natural history buffs and researchers may want to try The Ewell Sale Stewart Library and Archives at the Academy of Natural Sciences for a different scientific focus.
Lindsay Lewis is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.