Exploring the Peabody Library’s hidden gems

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All of the books at the Peabody are considered special collections – but some are more special than others. We check out the upstairs levels and the rare book collection – usually off-limits to visitors.

Walking through the upper floors of the Peabody Library is a bit like stepping into the psyche of the Baltimorean during the city’s golden age. Sure, there are the normal books you’d expect to find in a library that opened in 1878: books on antiquity, religion, and foreign countries. Old issues of Harper’s, first editions of Moby Dick and books by Edgar Allan Poe.

But then there’s the weird stuff. The books on madness, witchcraft and the evils of prostitution. There are guides to phrenology – a quack science that said the shape of someone’s skull determined their moral character, and mesmerism – which proclaimed to allow others to control people’s thoughts.

“It’s all informing the literature and the science of that time period,” says the Peabody’s curator, Paul Espinosa. Though most of these ideas – phrenology, for one – have long since been debunked, he says, “It provides kind of a snapshot in time to what they thought was important.”

They’re all reminders of the institution philanthropist George Peabody envisioned when he commissioned the library be built in the 19th century, hiring librarians to travel to the most impressive libraries in America in search of what a proper library should have.

“Their principles were that they were buying important books – sort of top of the line scholarly books, not penny dreadfuls and run of the mill fashion magazines, but books that would be ‘beneficial to the moral and intellectual culture of the inhabitants of Baltimore’ is what they literally said.”

The books were never meant to circulate (they never did and never will) – but to be readily available. “The easiest way to lose a book is to lend it out,” Espinosa says. “It doesn’t sound very democratic not to lend out books, but it was prescient at the time.”

Other libraries later stepped in as lending libraries notably when Enoch Pratt, who was on the original board of trustees at the Peabody, opened his library in 1882. Most of the patrons were likely to be scholars and students, particularly those affiliated with Johns Hopkins, which had been located next door.

It was important to George Peabody that his library be open to the public without charge – a mission that the library fulfills today. “Even though we’re part of Johns Hopkins today, anybody can come in and use the collection,” Espinosa says.

The inner sanctum of the library is the rare books room, housing any book printed before 1700. These include a music book from the 1400s hand-printed on cow’s hide – the print large enough to be read by monks standing at a distance. There are satirical cartoons lampooning Martin Luther, drawings of microscopic views of insects from the 1600s. One gem includes a book of figures of death – with skeletons seen tormenting bishops and farmers. It’s just one example of the memento mori tradition, which is meant to remind readers: death comes for us all.

“Sometimes we lament that we weren’t born 100 years earlier or 100 years later,” says Espinosa, alluding to the drawings. “But when all is said and done we’re pretty lucky.” For one thing, there’s no more bubonic plague.

Sadly for George Peabody, death came to him nine years before the library ever opened, and he never saw it complete.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Edgar Allan Poe.