About Providence Public Library Special Collections

The Providence Public Library Special Collections Department is comprised of several distinct collections of over 40,000 books, manuscripts, pamphlets, ephemera, newspapers, maps, broadsides, art, and artifacts, representing over four thousand years of human history and culture.

Palm Leaf Manuscript

Guest post by our Reading Room Attendant, Audrey Buhain.

This new year we processed something that is the first of its kind into our Special Collections: a palm leaf manuscript! 

The production of palm leaf manuscripts was most common before mass printing methods were adopted throughout South and Southeast Asia, but their production continues to this day. They consist of literary, folkloric, and religious texts that are handwritten onto palm leaves. Manuscripts are usually arranged between two wooden boards just like the ones pictured in this post.

We also wrote up a short finding aid (coming soon) to go along with this palm leaf manuscript. Written by archivists and librarians to contextualize the archives in their care, finding aids are guides that hope to structure informed, meaningful connections between visitors and the materials they wish to look at.

Crafting a finding aid for something that had never been cataloged into our collections had us thinking about a lot of things. For one, how can we be mindful as we navigate, affirm, and deviate from the historical narratives that already exist around this object? The knowledge we choose to share about the materials in our collections shapes not only present-day interactions between our visitors and our materials, but especially future interactions.

When we recognize that archiving actively shapes how objects exist in the present, and can exist throughout time, it’s our hope that we can offer historical knowledge in such a way that grants our collections the support to be understood with as much dimension and autonomy as is possible.


Like a Hurricane

The 75th anniversary of the 1938 hurricane is nearly upon us, and our current exhibition (extended through 21 September) gives you a chance to see some of the effects it had on New England.

It’s on display in the Providence Journal Rhode Island Room on Level 2.

Hurricane exhibition poster

The Updike Autograph Collection Is Now Open For Use

(The following post is contributed by Ramon Cartwright, a RISD graduate and one of our fantastic volunteers. Ramon recently finished processing a collection of over 800 important and wide-ranging manuscript items. Items from the collection have been mentioned on this blog before (here, here, here and here, for instance) but this is the first time the collection has been fully listed online. Upcoming posts will highlight other items from the collection and conservation efforts to preserve it.)

The processing of the Daniel Berkeley Updike Autograph Collection has been completed. Although there is evidence that the collection was initially comprised of New England names, the collection has now grown to reflect a more diverse grouping. A selection of the material, much of which had been culled from the correspondence and papers of Wilkins Updike, includes the names of men involved in politics. Eleven presidential signatures are included in the collection. Also included within the miscellany is a letter from Edgar Rice Burroughs, a poetic excerpt from Sarah Helen Whitman, and a series of fervid letters from a Union soldier to his parents.

During the processing of the Daniel Berkeley Updike Autograph Collection I encountered a 12 page manuscript by Agnes Repplier (1855-1950), titled “What Pessimism Is.” Repplier was a Philadelphia born essayist, biographer and occasional poet published regularly within the pages of The Atlantic Monthly. Her numerous essays were also published in Life, Harper’s, Monthly Magazine, The New Republic, McClure’s, and The Yale Review. “What Pessimism Is” expands upon and clarifies Repplier’s criticism of the poetry of Robert Browning. In an earlier analysis, also published in The Atlantic Monthly, Repplier had classified Browning’s poetry as “of the pessimistic order.” A controversy ensued. Browning enthusiasts found fault with the criticism and surmised that Repplier had failed to grasp Browning’s meaning. “What Pessimism Is,” offers her defense of the initial appraisal using examples of the poet’s works. The essay was published in The Atlantic Monthly Vol. LXII, 1888. Below the reader will find the first four pages of the manuscript. The pages illuminate the background to the article’s origin. Her wit and erudition, for which she had been known, are evinced in these first few pages.

Also included in the Updike Autograph Collection is a leaf from Henry David Thoreau’s essay “October, or Autumnal Tints.”  Originally published in the October 1862 Atlantic Monthly, the essay offers Thoreau’s extended meditation on the changing color of New England autumnal foliage. Among the tints that Thoreau focuses upon, the reader will find poetic descriptions of Sarsaparilla, Pokeweed, Red Maple, the Elm, Scarlet Oak, and more. The brief explication on each tint is presented in the order in which the brightest colors are displayed. The manuscript focuses on ripeness, as it is evinced in the brighter hue flowers assume prior to falling. The extract includes passages that were later revised prior to publication.  The leaf is float mounted on an 8 3/4 x 10 1/4 sheet of paper.

A Time for Play

Our regularly-scheduled Civil Warrior of the Week post will be taking a brief holiday hiatus and returning in two weeks. In its place, here’s something even better: your chance to party like its 1799.

First: Visit the Library’s 3rd floor exhibition gallery too see some fascinating items you probably haven’t encountered before. The exhibition is called “At Play,” and it will be on view until February 15.

Second: In tandem with the real-world, physical exhibition we’re also introducing an online mini-exhibition. But it’s an exhibition with a twist: not only can you view images of items from the exhibition, you can recreate those items for your own use. We’re offering images and instructions for creating replicas of five items from the exhibition, ranging in date as far back as the 17th century.

Let us know what you think. And have fun.

Sidney S. Rider of Providence – Bookman

Join us this Thursday evening at 6:30 for a lecture on one of the most active and important members of the 19th-century Providence book trade, Sidney S. Rider. Russell DeSimone will discuss Rider’s wide-ranging activities, from publishing and book selling to historical research and activism. To find out more, visit the Library’s events calendar.

Olde Style Medicine

We recently acquired this little nugget, which makes me feel fortunate that I am not a convalescent in the midddle of the 19thC.

CHARLES DYER, JR. DRUGGIST AND APOTHECARY, WESTMINSTER STREET, PROVIDENCE, R.I., Agent for the sale of the following valuable and popular medicines. (Providence: Knowles & Vose, ca. 1845).  An early and decorative medical advertising piece, printed on the recto of the first leaf of a bifolium.  Among the wares hawked are Starkweather’s Hepatic Elixir, Taylor’s Balsam of Liverwort, Richardson’s Bitters, Moffat’s Life Pills. Murray’s Fluid Magnesia, and Whitney’s Croup Cordial.
The Dyer family is a well-known one in Rhode Island, beginning with William Dyer, a Quaker who came to New England in 1635, was banished from Massachusetts and settled here in 1638, as one of the founders of Newport.

“May you henceforth shine in dress as well as deed”

It is fitting that Wimples and Crisping-Pins (Theodore Child, c1895) is a beautiful book. A chronicle of hairstyles and hair decoration over time,  even the book’s text drips with ornament.

PPL’s copy gets us into the giving spirit with this letter/poem from Willie to Liza, from Christmas, 1894:

“To Liza.

Although so fond of ‘prinking’,
I’m sure you won’t be thinking
That in mocking mood this present now I send,
For both I, and your son Willie,
Think it anything but silly
That to her adornment woman should attend.
When some new gown you’re trying,
with other fair dames vying,
You will want a really elegant coiffure;
Here from graceful Greek or Roman,
Or more modern lovely woman,
You may copy one exciting envy sure.

A merry Christmas greeting
To you; while time is fleeting
May you henceforth shine in dress as well as deed:
And should it ever get you guessing,-
This great problem of hair dressing,-
May this book contribute somewhat to your need!

Christmas 1894″


Journeys North

Arctic exploration in the mid and late 19th century captured the attentions of a society that required escape. Men who made discoveries claimed the previously unseen and unimagined territories as their own, and were celebrated for it. The books they wrote to chronicle their journeys were vivid tales that paralleled the fiction of their day, and included illustrations to aid the imagination of the reader.

Like the celebrities of today, these explorers were not strangers to controversy:

Charles Francis Hall, born a blacksmith, initially sojourned north to investigate a lost expedition. PPL’s special collections has the first edition of his account of his expedition, Arctic Researches and Life Amongst the Esquimaux (1865):

Hall met a fate that was similarly mysterious and controversial. In 1871 he died on a journey to the North Pole, not from the harsh environs, but from poisoning. 

Isaac Israel Hayes, an ambitious explorer who petitioned the United States government and many others to fund his expedition to the North Pole, published The Open Polar Sea in 1874:

It was later determined that some of Hayes claims of northern discovery were erroneous, and possibly faked.  


The Joy of Cookbooks

Food culture has gained a lot of attention and momentum recently; food, in the grocery store, in restaurants, and even in our lunch boxes (or pails, or bento boxes…) is being recognized not simply for its taste, but also for its visual qualities.

These aesthetic leanings have origins beyond blogs, and beyond,even, our beloved cooking superstars on television. PPL’s Special Collections contain a number of cookbooks, each capturing the beauty and the fun of food in the margins.


The Italian Confectioner
, by Guglielmo A Jarrin, 1831:

The ABC Chafing Dish Cookery, printed by The Peter Pauper Press, with decorations by Ruth McCrea, 1956:
The Cookout Book, by Helen Evans Brown & Philip S. Brown, with photography by George De Gennaro, and illustrations by Harry O. Diamond, 1961:

The Bottom of the Sea

Although its tone was described as “almost sensational” in its own time, L. Sonrel’s The Bottom of the Sea (translated by Elihu Rich, 1875) nevertheless captures the wonder people had and still have for the sea. As Sonrel states:

“The surface of the sea is less varied than that of the dry land; but look deep into its bosom, and no region of the earth could give so vivid an idea of the exuberance of life. Forms the most unexpected, a fecundity the most marvellous, challenge our admiration at every step we take through these wonderful regions. Here, to all appearance, is a plant, a miniature tree growing upon a rock; its branches are verdureless, but, strange to say, flowers of the most brilliant colours spring from their extremities. The petals have the power of motion, and by this motion they cause a miniature current to flow unceasingly towards them. Unhappy are the animalculae who may be drawn into this perpetually renewed stream, for i t flows into the mouths of the zoantharia, or animal-flower to which they serve for food!”