J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2019

As the David Library Moves to the Big City

The David Library of the American Revolution has long been an idiosyncratic institution. Collector Sol Feinstone named it after his grandson David. Its far-reaching collection of Revolutionary War histories is shelved in order of acquisition, not by subject, author, or publication date. As a young archive, it has amassed a vast collection of microfilm records related to the Revolution from other repositories.

Since the 1970s the library has stood on a hillside outside Washington’s Crossing, Pennsylvania, close to a national historical park but far from any other research institution. It offers research fellowships and also welcomes all other researchers who can make it through the front door. When I was there during the holiday season a few years ago, the reference librarian even had cookies to share. The library hosts many lectures in a barn converted into a lecture hall, and the turnout for those talks reflects its local following.

This spring the David Library announced that it was merging with the American Philosophical Society in downtown Philadelphia. In the Bucks County Courier Times Francine Lida Stone, Feinstone’s granddaughter and vice president of the library’s board of trustees, noted the old ties between those institutions. Feinstone was friends with A.P.S. librarian Whitfield Bell, and Bell’s current successor, Patrick Spero, has been a D.L.A.R. fellow, historian, and board member.

Most important, Feinstone’s own collection of Revolutionary-era manuscripts has been housed at the A.P.S. for years. One condition of the merger is that those documents will be digitized and put on line, making them more widely available.

Of course, most of the David Library’s idiosyncrasies will go away as it becomes the David Center at the A.P.S. The books won’t be on open shelves, so the shelving will no longer make researchers contemplate a wide range of subtopics. Visitors will go through a more rigorous registration process, though Stone notes, “the new David Center will have a special curator to assist any member of the public, prior to and during any visit.” There won’t be cookies in the reading room.

At this point, it looks like the David Center board still hopes to offer a Revolutionary speakers series near Washington’s Crossing. It would be hard to find a venue with the same character, but there are surely other halls in the area and an established audience.

Now I’ve always visited the D.L.A.R. while staying with relatives in Princeton, New Jersey. With a car, the site was quite convenient (narrow bridge notwithstanding). Going into Philadelphia won’t be so handy. But of course for people based at most compass points, the David Collection will now be more accessible. So I can lament that change but I can’t make an unselfish argument for preserving the old location.

What I’ll really miss is the D.L.A.R.’s proudly unique way of doing things. Not that I always understood the reasons. But it was fun knowing that there was a serious institution following its own path.

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