Penn Libraries News

Getting Creative with the Penn Materials Library

For National Library Week, we sat down with Michael Carroll to learn about the Materials Library's unique collections.

Five shelves filled with colorful materials, including bricks, textiles, wood samples, tiles, and papers. Items are grouped by color. Colors from top to bottom: blue (left) white (right); pink (left) beige (right); red (left) brown (right); orange (left) grey (right); green (left) tan (right).

You probably know you can borrow books from the Penn Libraries. You might know about the many databases and journals that you can read and explore, the medieval manuscripts you can view online or in person, and the audio recording equipment you can check out.

But did you know that the Penn Libraries also collects bricks? And wallpaper? And biodegradable plastics? Samples of substances both cutting-edge and mundane, historical and ultra-modern, can be seen, touched, smelled, and studied at the Penn Materials Library.

The Making of a Unique Collection

Situated in the Fisher Fine Arts Library building, the Penn Materials Library is still a relatively new enterprise. In 2017, Hannah Bennett, then the director of the Fisher Fine Arts Library, tasked librarians with putting together a unique collection that could act as a design resource for students, faculty, and researchers, and would complement the more traditional fine arts holdings.  

“They started collecting anything and everything,” says Michael Carroll, who is now the Materials Library and Image Collections Manager, “from historical pigments to more science-y things like aerogel,” a lighter-than-air synthetic material sometimes called “solid smoke.” Soon, though, the collection began to focus on materials created with sustainability in mind. “They were really ahead of the curve,” Carroll notes. “People were starting to ask, how do we supplant concrete? How do we supplant plastics? How can we use alternative building materials? So they worked with architecture students and faculty to get samples of materials that could be less harmful for the environment.”

Today, the collections consist of over 8,000 materials, including a t-shirt made from casein, a protein derived from spoiled milk, “blood leather” made from slaughterhouse waste, and a sample of the pigment Vanta Black. Carroll started working with the collection last summer. “There’s not too much of a road map for these kinds of collections. Now that we’re five years in and we have a large collection, we get to be a bit of an example [for other institutions that want to do something similar.]”

Learning to Think Outside the Box

The heart of the collection is focused on architecture and design, so no surprise that it’s a major resource for the Stuart Weitzman School of Design. The cutting-edge, sustainable materials collected in the library are of particular interest to Assistant Professor of Architecture Laia Mogas-Soldevila, who teaches a seminar on the use of biomaterials in architecture. “They’re looking at how silk can be used as a construction material, or how to use mushrooms for insulation,” Carroll explains.  

Students can learn about these science-fiction-esque applications in books and journals, or even speak to designers who have used them, but the materials library lets them engage on a whole new level. “The seminar introduces students to a new body of knowledge that is very experimental and can many times only be explained by touching, smelling, and observing the materials themselves,” says Mogas-Soldevila. To enhance the experience for her students, Carroll has made regular visits to the seminar this spring, each time bringing a new material that helps them think differently about building construction. This multisensory exploration encourages students to think boldly and creatively when writing project proposals for class. “I’m showing them atypical things that they hadn’t previously thought about from an architectural design perspective,” says Carroll. “For example, a student might think, ‘What if I use algae printing ink as a more sustainable solution to petroleum-based ink?’”

But Weitzman students aren’t the only ones who can learn new skills or explore ideas from new perspectives with the help of the Materials Library—in fact, it has something for everyone in the Penn community.

That’s what Wharton sophomore Anoushka Ambavanekar realized when she first found out about the Materials Library. “I thought it was fascinating and wanted to visit, but I didn't have a specific reason.” A project about sustainable materials for the class How To Make Things: Production Prototyping Studio gave her just the opportunity she was looking for. “I wanted to make a watercolor palette with watercolors made from natural materials--various fruits, vegetables, and spices.” Among the Materials Library collections are a variety of samples of resins and pigments made with food waste, so Carroll was able to advise her on potential food-based pigment sources, which eventually included beets, spinach, blueberries, maccha, cocoa powder, and more. Ambavanekar isn’t done experimenting with food-based pigments, either: her Instagram account regularly features her “Will it Watercolor?” videos of her most recent pigment-making experiments.

Carroll has also collaborated with Penn Museum keeper William Wierzbowski on a program on fish leather, and with Japanese Studies professor Julie Nelson Davis for a project on block printing—and that only scratches the surface when it comes to ways that people have engaged with the collection. Working with students and researchers is one of the best parts of his job, Carroll says. “I get to engage our researchers, help them find the information they seek, and be part of the design process,” he says. “I'm not a designer in that sense, but it's proven to be a really fun challenge to help them work through what’s possible.”

Visiting the Materials Library

Whether you’re an architecture student who wants to learn about petroleum-free building materials, an art historian researching historical pigments, or a healthcare researcher interested in cutting-edge products used in medical devices, you might find something exciting to explore at the Materials Library. Anyone interested in using the library or learning more about its collection can get in touch with Carroll by email, or by filling out the library’s online form. Along with advising on projects, Materials Library staff are also happy to give tours to anyone who is curious about what they have.

The Materials Library is also planning to expand their workshop offerings, giving all members of the Penn community an opportunity to play and create in their collections. This spring, they offered workshops on how to use their 3D scanner, but future events might focus on skills like weaving, spinning, and fabric dying. Participants might even see some of their creations end up in the library’s collections. “We have a lot of dye materials, especially natural plant dyes, where we don’t have a [corresponding] dyed sample. These workshops will be an opportunity to teach people about dyeing, but will also be practical because it will help grow that collection.”

Regardless of why you stop by the Materials Library, you’re sure to see something you have never seen in person before. “It's fascinating to explore these vastly different materials that have been sent from all over the world,” says Ambavanekar. “I recommend students visit even if they don't have a specific reason.”

Want to keep up with everything happening at the Materials Library or get a peek behind the scenes at their collections? Be sure to follow them on Instagram