Philomathian Society, College Hall, Univ. of Pennsylvania

The William Henry Harrison Presidential Library, Philomathean Halls

The very heart of the Philomathean Society, the library, has been the home of impromptu impassioned debates, and lonely scholars working late into the night. Lining the shelves are nearly two centuries worth of books donated by members upon their induction into the society, and again upon their graduation.


Before the University moved west to its current campus, before the 1888 construction of its Furness Library, it was the Philomathean Society’s collection which served as the de facto University library. It found a new home on the fourth floor of College Hall when the University built quarters for both the Philomathean and Zelosophic Societies.


In 1916, with $1,500 dollars worth of profits from their production of ‘A Comedy of Errors’ the Philomatheans changed their “library chambers into an experimental theater complete with portable stage. The library book cases were removed, and new meeting room seats with overhanging book shelves were installed.” (Philomathean Society History).


Eleven years later the society was booted out of its roost atop College Hall, and forced to share a room in Houston Hall with twelve other student groups. This meant that most of the collection was dispersed; some volumes were added to the University’s collection, while other volumes were lost forever.


By 1954 the Society’s collection had dwindled to only 157 volumes. Fortunately, it did not take long for the collection to grow with dedication of incoming Philomatheans and their families. Augmented further by bequests from two Philomatheans (Betty Rosencrantz and Robert Sebastian), the Society also pressed forward with its own initiatives with the aim of growing the collection. Perhaps the most notorious of these was our effort to designate the Society the official William Henry Harrison Presidential Library, with a particular focus on the texts about Classical Rome that formed the basis of the Inaugural Address that killed our Nation’s ninth President.


Today the Library, restored to its former home in College Hall, has amassed a sizable collection ranging over a wide array of materials. In the main library, generous fiction and biography sections compliment a wide range of books from anthropology to a subject beginning with “z” less trite than “zoology” (although our zoological collection is extensive). Our poetry section is regularly raided for use in the Keats & Beats poetry readings. In the office, serving as the Library Annex, primary source documents, and bound collections of journals such as Foreign Affairs, can be used for research. The annex is the home of books by Philomatheans, and a selection of books from the Zelosophic Library as well.


As the Society changes its face the Library has changed its fundamental political character. Thus, in recent history the Library has been ruled by a Communist dictatorship, a Mugabe-style socialist regime, theocracy, a committee for public safety, a “Bibliotechnion” run by machine intelligences, a Dinocracy (ruled by the Baron Von Triceratops III), a Galactic Empire, and a coalition of Animal Kingdoms. It is fitting that the Library continues to experience these changes of regime, since its collection is ever-changing as well: reflective of the living Society that gives it life and patronage.