Friends Historical Library was established in 1871, two years after Swarthmore college opened its doors, when Anson Lapham donated 150 volumes of Quaker books for a small library "exclusively for matters pertaining to Friends." Since then, the Library has collected books, serials, manuscripts, archives, pictures, audio-visual materials, computer files and memorabilia pertaining to Quaker history, dating from the mid-seventeenth century beginnings of the Religious Society of Friends in England to the present. Today, with more than 45,000 books, pamphlets and serials, 60,000 photographs, nearly 400 major manuscript collections, and 9,000 volumes of original meeting records, Friends Historical Library is one of the outstanding research facilities for the study of Quaker history. The Library also maintains the Swarthmore College Archives.
Friends Historical Library collects material in all formats by and about the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and its members. The Library's holdings reflect the fact that Swarthmore College was founded by a committee of Friends from Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia Yearly Meetings and had a long association with bodies related to Friends General Conference. Besides the obvious focus on religious history, the holdings form a significant research collection for the regional and local history of the middle-Atlantic region of the United States and the history of American social reform. Quakers played prominent roles in almost every major reform movement in American history, including abolition, Indian rights, women's rights, prison reform, humane treatment of the mentally ill, and temperance. The collections also reflect the significant role Friends played in the development of science, technology, education, and business in Britain and America. While Quakers were less prominent in the arts, these are represented through such figures as poet John Greenleaf Whittier, novelist Nora Waln, and art critic Earl Shinn, Jr.
Access policies are designed to provide maximum convenience to researchers consistent with the library's responsibility for preservation of the materials entrusted to its care and reasonable protection of individual privacy. While the Library's primary mission is the support of scholarly research in Quaker history, its facilities are available to the public, including those studying their own family history.