Penn Gets Priceless Parchment

May 4, 2011

Amidst hard-to-ignore societal developments and tendencies that are disheartening (however variously we may identify and diagnose those), I especially love to hear news of events like this massive donation of valuable manuscripts to the University of Pennsylvania. The motives and nature of the gift serve as a reminder that there are still thoughtful collectors like this one: “The overarching reason why I collect,” Larry Schoenberg reflected, “is the opportunity it affords me to participate in the history of human intellectual activity and the exchange of knowledge.” Wow. Some people really deserve to be rich. Besides bearing testimony to some timeless questions in music, art, science, mathematics, and technology, these manuscripts offer the chance to contemplate in one room “the scope of pre-modern knowledge of the physical world in the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions” — a concern that could hardly be more timely in its potential to contribute to much-needed mutual understanding.

The gift also shows how forward-thinking some careful accumulators can be: “A principal reason behind the Schoenbergs’ decision to donate their collection to Penn was the Libraries’ reputation for providing digital access to rare materials and for supporting the hands-on use of primary sources in research and teaching.” This is far from being mutual back-scratching by remnants of some musty antiquarianism. These kinds of intelligent gifts are investments in a future that we may hope will come.

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