A life-long Philadelphian, Robert Dechert achieved prominence both locally and nationally as a lawyer and public servant. He came to bibliophily late in his life and never devoted himself exclusively to the pursuit of rare books. Yet what Dechert lacked in time, he made up for in energy. When he gave his collection of Americana to the University of Pennsylvania in 1962, it was one of the most important then in private hands.
The Robert Dechert Collection contains printed materials relating the experiences of French explorers of North and South America, as well as documenting North American Jesuit relations. Works that illustrate Native American life and costumes are another emphasis of the Dechert Collection. Early examples include several volumes of Theodor De Bry's India occidentalis (Frankfurt 1591); later examples include M'Kenney and Hall. Later North American travel literature is also strongly represented. Early narratives of the Lewis and Clark expedition and such nineteenth-century illustrated books as those by Maximilian Wied von Neuwied and Karl Bodmer complement some of the great rarities of later western overland travel, including works by Zenas Leonard and John Hale.
The Robert Dechert Americana Book Fund supports the maintenance of the Robert Dechert Collection, given to the Penn Library "in appreciation of what the University has meant to me over the years, and of what it can do for generations of the future by inspiring in them an interest in the days of Frenchmen, Indians and Mountain Men and others involved with the frontier of America."