Library Exhibition Explores the Original Social Network

Curated by George Allan ’24, Alba Amicorum highlights the signature and autograph books in Haverford’s Quaker and Special Collections.

Nestled between rows of workspaces in Lutnick Library’s Magill Wing, a new exhibition weaves together stories of connection through books from Haverford’s Quaker and Special Collections. Alba Amicorum, curated by George Allan ’24, explores how people use signatures and autograph collections to commemorate important moments in their lives. 

Album amicorum, which translates from Latin to “list of friends,” describes the practice of recording signatures in small autograph albums. The tradition originated in 1500s Germany for religious purposes but evolved by the 1700s to include U.S. students, who used the practice to commemorate their fellow classmates during their schooling years. In modern-day America, most students have at least one album amicorum in the form of a yearbook signed by friends. 

For Allan, who graduated in December, curating the show gave him unique insight into the student body during the College’s first 100 years. 

“I think the big surprise when doing this exhibit was that not all of the students who signed these books finished their degree, whether it was because they had joined the army, moved away, or simply decided to do a year of classes and move on,” he says. “It made trying to track down some of the signatures slightly harder, but it was also really cool because they were students we otherwise didn’t have a record of.”

The exhibit focuses on later evolutions of the practice, broadening the definition to include autograph collections and scrapbooks found in the College’s collections. It includes signature books from Haverford alums from the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as other members of the greater community. For example, the exhibit includes a collection of autographs gathered by Irvin C. Poley from the Class of 1912, including signatures of notable figures from the time, including former presidents Chester A. Arthur and Theodore Roosevelt. An autograph book and scrapbook that once belonged to 1885 alum Marriott Canby Morris, who cut and pasted signatures and photographs into the book, is also included. 

Allan says his intention for the exhibit is to encourage the College community to consider how they might be remembered throughout history. 

“Something that came to mind as I was researching alba amicorum generally, and these specifically, is that it’s really important to record things and to try and leave your mark on a place,” he says. “Haverford students still have a form of this through the signing of the bell tower in Founders, which I got to do in December. It’s just really cool to have this personal thing that can live on for hundreds of years.”

To that end, Allan topped off the exhibit with a small black notebook and pen that’s ready for visitors to sign their names and create a new album amicorum that reflects Haverford’s community today.