The Van Pelt library at the University of Pennsylvania truly is the type you can get lost in. I know ’cause I did. Early in my research I discovered that there was a person named John Beale Bordley, who was a colonial hotshot and one of the first production-scale brewers in Maryland. Bordley was friendly with Thomas Jefferson and as concerned as he was about what we now call sustainable living. Part of that, for Bordley, was not having to rely upon the British for ale.
The Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts was pretty intimidating, even before I gained access. Initially, I found the store room, although I didn’t go in. It had things like Johnson’s Dictionary and the History of England on shelves behind glass in what I’m sure was a climate-controlled room.
I stood before the glass dumbly for awhile, walked back among the old stacks and then returned. Eventually, a librarian and I happened to cross one another’s paths and he conducted me up to the proper research part of the library. Making conversation in the elevator, the liberian asked my name, and appeared genuinely excited to hear it.
“We have almost everything together for you,” he said. “We weren’t sure when you’d be getting here so we just started.”
The way the rare books and manuscript section works is you register online the day before for the books or papers you want. Then, the librarians pull everything you request from wherever it is in the library and bring it to you on a trolly of boxes. Then, you check out one box at a time. If the contents require gloves to handle, they let you know, but none of mine did, most were encased in plastic sleeves to protect against aging. Some were books. As it turned out, Bordley was an avid annotator. He annotated letters as well as books, meaning I had to read the correspondent’s assertions, just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything important.
Fortunately, he had pretty nice handwriting. Unfortunately, I didn’t know much about colonial era brewing apparatus and he was something of a sketcher. The book contains a sketch of Bordley’s brewhouse, but I had to wade through all of his schematics to figure out which was brewing stuff and which was for farming. All of it was for farming.
As I prepared to leave, I had very little new information, but a ton of leads. I could go to the Library Company of Philadelphia and to the Maryland Historical Society, both of which had his papers. If I went to either of those places, at least I would have a solid starting place. The frustrating thing was a family history by one of his descendants who knew him, a grand or great-grand child, I think. She had his books and talks about how much he loved making beer and how nice it is to see his notes. Whether the notes were in another collection or lost to history, I wouldn’t know until after the book was going to press.