Edwin Wolf II

William M. Sample
Carolyn L. Johnson

“Bow-tied and fiercely whiskered, [Wolf] is bombastic, charming, irascible and razor-witted,” wrote Lucinda Fleeson in a 1988 profile in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “His friends and colleagues…say he can be the most generous, patient scholar and teacher imaginable – and occasionally the most cantankerous.” From 1955 until 1984 Wolf held the chief executive position, that of Librarian, at the Library Company of Philadelphia, an institution founded by Benjamin Franklin. He received the Philadelphia Award for having transformed the library from a struggling institution in South Philadelphia into a world-renowned research center in Center City, specializing in both the history of Philadelphia and the United States before 1880.

W olf was a gifted student who graduated at the age of fifteen from the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia. He continued his secondary education with “three years of polishing” at the Bedales School in England. He credited the classical liberal education he received there for his ability to adapt to diverse academic fields in his work.

Upon returning home in 1930, his father Morris Wolf, a leading Philadelphia lawyer, arranged for him to work at the rare-book firm of A.S.W. Rosenbach, one of the world’s premier antiquarian book dealers. “What a wealth…of treasures I handled…scrutinized, marveled at, and sometimes read,” Wolf recalled, “ranging from a twelfth-century manuscript with carved and painted oak covers…to the manuscript copy of the Declaration of Independence Benjamin Franklin sent to Frederick of Prussia.” “For over two decades I worked in the shadow of Dr. Rosenbach, the boy in the back room” who wrote and edited the firm’s printed catalogues. His prolific and stylistic contributions to the catalogs and other publications earned him the reputation of a respected scholar in the rare-book world.

In 1952 Wolf left the Rosenbach firm and was hired as a consultant to the Library Company of Philadelphia. His survey unearthed innumerable rare books, pamphlets, and prints, unrecorded in the card catalogue and unknown to the board of directors, including works by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and the copy of Du Pratz’s History of Louisiana that Merriwether Lewis had carried with him during his expedition. His report to the Board was “unequivocally upbeat” – and in 1953 Wolf was hired as Curator, and in 1955 as Librarian, to implement his own recommendations.

Under Wolf the library was moved from its deteriorating, damp facility at Broad and Christian streets to its current location at Juniper and Locust. The massive library of contemporary fiction and biography, acquired to make the library relevant to the public, was discarded. A new cataloguing system for shelving and recording the library’s holdings was introduced. Wolf’s passion for rare-books compelled many prominent Philadelphia families to donate their private collections. He shrewdly purchased books and manuscripts on subjects not in demand in the rare-book marketplace, including books and manuscripts by or about African-Americans. Wolf further established the library’s reputation through lectures and publications, including, rich in prints and photographs, Philadelphia, Portrait of an American City (1975).

Popular exhibitions at the Library Company, curated in large part by Wolf, included “Bibliothesauri: or, Jewels from the Shelves of the Library Company” (1966), “Negro History, 1553-1903” (1969); and “A Rising People: The Founding of the United States” (1976). The accomplishments of Edwin Wolf II, or as he preferred to call himself, “Dinosaurus Bibliothecarius,” were celebrated in “The Wolf Years” (1984), featuring the acquisitions he secured, his exhibitions, and his writings.

Wolf admired, and successfully modeled himself upon, the great librarians he had known, such as Clarence Brigham at the American Antiquarian Society—“consummate rare-book men, autocratic individualists, who in their way made great libraries greater.”

David B. Reader & David Haugaard

Sources: Obituary, Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 21,1991; Leonard W. Boasberg; “A Rare Appreciation of History Edwin Wolf is Immersed in the 1800s,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug. 4, 1984; Lucinda Fleeson; “A Life of Searching Out the Rare Book,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 10, 1988; Gerald B. Jordan,“Contribution of Edwin Wolf 2nd Honored in Library Exhibition,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 16, 1985; Marie Elena Korey, The Wolf Years (Phila., 1984); Edwin Wolf II, An Autobiographical Sketch (Phila., 1991).