Step inside the Boston Public Library’s imposing central branch building and visitors are greeted with 17th-century Renaissance Revival architecture, a reading room with a 50-foot-high barrel vault ceiling, and bespoke murals curated by French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.
Like much of its architecture, the contents inside the library — the first large free municipal library in the United States — date back hundreds of years to the birth pangs of American democracy and beyond.
On the fourth floor of the library’s Boylston Street building lives the Special Collections Department, which is home to original documents from throughout the nation’s history. From letters written by Frederick Douglass to former president John Adams’s personal library of books, the department stores many notable documents the public can see and handle.
“It’s harder to talk about what we have than what we don’t have,” Jay Moschella, curator of rare books at the Boston Public Library said.
Earlier this month, the department hosted an open house to showcase the library’s rare collection of Phillis Wheatley works to celebrate the 250th anniversary of her first collection of poems, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.”
The collection of works from the Boston-based author widely considered the first African American to publish a poetry book includes: a signed first edition of “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” original newspaper notices from the late 1700s when Wheatley began publishing poetry, 18th-century printings of Wheatley’s poems, a rare portrait of Wheatley, and more.
“Phillis Wheatley is a major American figure but the documentary record of her life is really extensively covered in newspapers, not just in her printed book,” Moschella said. “These are very rare and ephemeral materials because they’re newspapers that are now almost 250 years old.”
Mayor Michelle Wu, who visited the Phillis Wheatley open house, praised the library for its work to preserve such special historical works.
“Boston residents are so fortunate to have access to a wide variety of rare, historic works at the Boston Public Library’s Special Collections,” Wu said in a statement to the Globe. “Having had the chance to see the Phillis Wheatley collection up close reminded me of the treasures the BPL takes such great care of, and how special it is that our library system prioritizes unparalleled public access to these treasures.”
But the materials aren’t only available for viewing at open houses; visitors can still explore the collection at the Special Collections Department.
Moschella said that anyone can come to the department to view the materials, but he recommends people make an appointment online before visiting to ensure that the items they want to see are available. When people request to view materials, BPL staff like Moschella are available to answer questions and help the public handle the archives.
“These are materials that are 250 years old, most people haven’t worked with things like this before and we want to really demystify the process,” Moschella said. “It’s our job to make these accessible and we are here to answer whatever questions people have.”
In addition to Wheatley’s documents, there are several other rare pieces in the BPL’s Special Collections Department that the public can delve into, from original printings of the Declaration of Independence to authentic William Shakespeare literature and more.
“We have one of the major collections of papers and manuscripts and rare printed materials related to 19th-century American abolitionists and the abolitionist movement,” Moschella said. “The BPL holds the papers of William Lloyd Garrison, we have letters from Frederick Douglass, and virtually anybody that you can think of from the 19th century that was involved in the abolitionist movement.”
The reading room where the public can request to handle materials is open Wednesday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The BPL Special Collections Department lobby where people can view “materials on display, rare books, and a smattering of things from the collection that people won’t see anywhere else really,” according to Moschella, is open Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
“If somebody feels like this isn’t the place for them, if they don’t know how to use the materials, or they don’t know what it is, they should not be afraid to come in,” Moschella said. “That is why we are here, we can walk everyone through handling the materials, every single step of the way.”