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Othmer Library of Chemical History: Rare Books

The Donald F. and Mildred Topp Othmer Library is an independent research library.

General Information

Othmer Library of Chemical History

Science History Institute
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Monday - Friday
10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. 

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About our Rare Book Collection

The collection consists of over 6,000 volumes of rare books dealing with all aspects of chemistry and related subjects from the 15th century on. Readers will find all of the landmark works of the history of chemistry, often in multiple editions. In addition, hundreds of other lesser-known works of equal interest can be found.

The rare-book collection also contains significant concentrations of works on the early chemical industry and commerce, including distillation, bleaching and dyeing, the study and use of mineral waters, the early gas-lighting industry and its critics, perfumery, and a host of productive processes ranging from the extraction and treatment of sugar to the procurement and purification of saltpeter, to the manufacture of steel, glass, alum, vitriol, and porcelain as well as that of beer and wine.

Allied fields that deploy chemical knowledge form further important clusters of materials, such as mining and metallurgy, assaying, gunnery, pyrotechnics, and books of secrets. The related subjects of medicine, pharmacy, crystallography, geology, mineralogy, balneology, physics, and botany are also well represented.

Accessing Rare Books for Research

  1. Each researcher must make an appointment, complete a research application and provide a current photo identification.
  2. Research materials may NOT be borrowed. 
  3. Researchers must request materials in advance of their appointment.   
  4. Research materials will not be retrieved between 12:00 p.m. --1:00 p.m.
  5. The researcher must return all materials to a staff member when leaving the reading room. 
  6. Staff reserves the right to inspect all items brought into the reading room upon exit, including but not limited to laptops, notebooks, portfolios, folders, stacks of paper, etc. 
  7. Bags, Coats, and other large items must be stored in a reading room locker.
  8. At times, other obligations and low staffing may hinder access to special collections, to minimize complications, make an appointment at least 24 hours in advance. 

Handling Rare Books During Research

  1. A maximum of two rare books are allowed with a reader at any one time (at the discretion of Library Staff)
  2. Rare books will be used with foam cradles to support the spine; snakes can be used to gently prop open pages but excess manipulation of the spine or pages is prohibited.
  3. The Curator or Librarian reserves the right to withhold handling of materials by readers based on the item’s fragility, rarity, reading room conditions, or any unforeseen circumstances.   
  4. Only pencils may be used.  INK IS NOT ALLOWED.
  5. No smoking, eating (including gum), or drinking is allowed.
  6. All material must be handled with care.  Paperclips or “post-it” notes may not be used; marks may neither be added nor erased; tracing and rubbing is prohibited.  Loose sheets (such as photographs or manuscripts) should be handled by their edges.  Some items require the use of gloves and staff supervision.
  7. Materials are to remain at your desk, do not remove them to other parts of the library. Only you are permitted to handle the material that you requested, do not share the material with other readers.   
  8. Photocopies and scans will be made by staff and should be requested by form. Please see form for pricing structure. Scans for publication purposes   may be obtained through permission, please see publication form.
  9. Digital cameras;  Our policy is to allow the use of digital cameras on the condition that:

(a) you fill out the Personal Camera Permission Form;

(b) you may not use tripods, artificial lights or any intrusive equipment;

(c) on the understanding that photographs are allowed only for research purposes and not for publication.