Encountering rare texts in the Penn Libraries 

Undergraduate art history majors organize event showcasing ten works spanning nearly 2,000 years.

People lookiing at books on a table in a historic library.
Undergraduate history of art majors organized an event at the Penn Libraries featuring 10 rare texts, out on a table and open for anyone to see, ranging from a manuscript dated to about the year 850 to COVID-19 posters from 2020.

Open on the long table in the center of the historic Lea Library were some of the most significant treasures from the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. The printed objects spanned the ages, from about the year 850—the Latin translation of Aristotle’s “On Interpretation,” one of the oldest books in Philadelphia—to some of the latest acquisitions, posters from 2020 documenting the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China.

The works were assembled not for a select audience but instead for anyone who wanted to come by the Penn Libraries on a Tuesday afternoon. About 25 people attended the hourlong event, “Unearthing Rare Books: Ten Hidden Gems from the Kislak Center,” put together by students on the History of Art Department’s Undergraduate Advisory Board. Hands had to be washed and belongings stored away, but students who came could carefully peruse the rarities.

One exhibit was a collection of astronomical and astrological texts in Hebrew from Spain, dated to 1361, including a handwritten and illustrated copy of a treatise on the calendar originally compiled for a king, with an almanac of oppositions and conjunctions of the sun and moon and predictions of lunar and solar eclipses. Another was a copy of an anatomy treatise (original dated to 1396) written in Persian and Arabic in 1411; it has some of the oldest representations of the human body in the Islamic world, with a full-page anatomical diagram illustrating each chapter, including bones, organs, nerves, veins, arteries, and muscles.


Fourth-year Aili Waller, a history of art major and global medieval and renaissance studies minor in the College of Arts and Sciences, is co-chair of the advisory board and the inaugural outreach intern at the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the Penn Libraries.

“I tried to give a span across time and tried to touch on different subjects with each, concepts people can understand, like an anatomy book, a medical book, natural drawings, objects with a lot of images,” says Waller, who is from Lexington, Virginia.

Other undergrads on the advisory board who helped organize the event included fourth-year student Emma Poveda, an art history major from Los Angeles, and Victoria Gu, a double major in art history in the College and finance in the Wharton School, from Short Hills, New Jersey. Also on hand was Sonal Khullar, History of Art Department undergraduate chair, and W. Norman Brown Associate Professor of South Asian Studies.

Waller took the lead in choosing the “ten critical objects” to have available for the event, assisted by Nicholas Herman, the Lawrence J. Schoenberg Curator. “We want to get more undergraduates engaged,” Herman says. “We do a lot of work with graduate students and researchers. Undergrads usually come in a class context. Something like this is more informal.”

People lookiing at books on a table in a historic library.
About 25 people visited the hourlong event in the historic Lea Library.