University Archives and Records Center, University of Pennsylvania

Joseph-James Ahern Blog Post

The University of Pennsylvania was founded in 1755 by Benjamin Franklin as a nonsectarian local institution with a focus on educating the future leaders of business and government in Philadelphia. In the 259 years since its creation, the University of Pennsylvania has grown to include a Medical School (1765), Law School (1850), and a School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (185) – to name a few – and is an eminent, world-class institution for the creation and dissemination of knowledge, serving as a model for colleges and universities throughout the world. The University Archives and Records Center was established in 1945 to serve as the official repository for historically significant records, taking over from the Office of the Secretary. In the decades since, the Archives' collections have grown to include over 14,000 cubic feet of records, 35,000 images, and 150 cubic feet of memorabilia.

The primary focus of the Archives is the history of the University. In addition to the University’s administrative records (which date back to 1740), the Archives’ collections document prominent persons associated with the University and also with the history of institutions of higher learning in the United States, American intellectual life, and the Philadelphia community in which the University lives. To this end the Archives collects the papers of faculty members and alumni, records of student organizations, University associated institutions records, and papers that document the University’s West Philadelphia home. As the home to the first medical school in America, the Archives’ holdings are an excellent source for documenting the development of medical education in the United States from the eighteenth through twentieth centuries.

The research community that utilizes the Archives’ collections includes scholars, students, genealogists, and members of the Penn community. Research topics have included the University’s role in the development of ENIAC, the Medical Schools 250th anniversary, biographies of Raymond Pace Alexander (a Penn alumnus and pioneer among African Americans in the legal profession and a leader in public affairs, politics, and government throughout the middle half of the twentieth century), and the documentation of alumni by family members. During the year staff archivist handle over 2000 reference questions (the majority from e-mail), and assist over 200 patrons on site. The primary access point for patrons is the Archives' website. In addition to finding aids, the site includes scanned primary documents (e.g. yearbooks, catalogs, and alumni directories), the digital image collection, subject guides, and historical exhibits. The collections are also an important resource for professors teaching classes on such topics as the social development of Philadelphia, and the history of photography.

One of the most interesting collections at the University Archives (and one of the most used by professors) is the Eadweard Muybridge Collection, which documents his Animal Locomotion study at the University of Pennsylvania. Muybridge, who was born in England in 1830, immigrated to the United States in 1852 and gained recognition as a landscape photographer of the American West. His work on animal locomotion began in 1872 when Leland Stanford asked him to settle a $25,000 bet by photographing a horse in motion to prove that all four feet were simultaneously in the air at one point. His eventual success with the study and creation of the zoopraxiscope would make him internationally famous. In 1884 Muybridge began his animal locomotion study at the University of Pennsylvania with funding from prominent Philadelphians and space provided by the University, which resulted in 781 photographs of men, women, and animals performing common actions which would be of great use to artists, anatomists, physiologists and athletes. The Muybridge Collection at the University Archives documents the work on this study – including photographs, correspondence, and some equipment. Probably the most interesting aspect of the collection is the near complete set of plates produced by the study.

For anyone who has used the University Archives, and has a collection they found useful or interesting, we'd be happy to hear from you.

The University Archives and Records Center is located at 3401 Market Street, Suite 210 in Philadelphia, PA. Reading Room hours are Monday – Friday, 9:30 am – 4:30 pm. Reference inquiries and requests for an appointment can be sent to The Archives website is