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The Biddle Law Library in Words and Images

April 14, 2010

April 11-17 is National Library Week, which recognizes and celebrates the contribution of libraries to society.  In an age when search engines and electronic databases are just a few keystrokes away, the library has evolved to become a service as much as it is a space.  National Library Week invites us all to reflect on libraries, and so I would like to take this opportunity to explore the history of the Biddle Law Library in words and images.

Although the Law School was formally established by the University in 1817 (with law lectures held in Philadelphia as far back as 1790), the library was not constructed until the late 1880s.  In the early days of the Law School, students relied on the local bar association library, located in the Philadelphia Athenaeum on 6th Street.  (The Archives has a collection from this bar association, the first of its kind in the United States; more information is located here.)  This changed in 1887, however, when the family of George Biddle, a prominent Philadelphia attorney who had died the previous year, donated the first collection of books that would help start the George Biddle Memorial Library.  Subsequent donations from the Biddle family happened in 1889 and 1897.  By the time the Law School moved west of the Schuylkill River in 1901, to what is now known as Silverman Hall, the collection had grown to 20,000 volumes.

For the better part of the 20th Century, the Biddle Law Library was located on the second floor of Silverman Hall.  Some of our longest-standing librarians remember working in the former library, where long oak tables with ornate lamps were hallmarks of the traditional library reading room.  During this time, the library’s collections and services greatly increased.  Its mission was carried about by a succession of library directors, including Margaret Klingelsmith, who in 1898 became the first woman appointed Director of a law school library.

In 1992, the Law School expanded its footprint when Tanenbaum Hall was built.  Situated opposite the courtyard from the Law School’s oldest building, the new structure signified the progress from tradition to innovation.  The library moved from Silverman to Tanenbaum, where it now occupies the top four floors.  While these days you’re likely to see more eyes on laptops than noses in books, the library continues to be a major draw for the student body to study, collaborate, and visit with each other.  Our reputation even extends beyond the Penn Law compound, as noted by the Penn’s student-run arts magazine voted Biddle the best place to study in 2009.  (Take that, Fisher Fine Arts Library.) 

Like many of our students, I’m what’s known as a Digital Native, having come of age in an era where hopping online seems as natural as turning on water.  However, it suprises (and impresses) me that in an age of virtual reality and electronic media, people even more digitally integrated than I continue to seek out physicial spaces for study, contemplation, and inspiration.  I guess some things never change.