Boston Athenæum

Boston Athenæum is one of the oldest independent libraries in the United States. It is also one of only sixteen extant membership libraries, meaning that patrons pay a yearly subscription fee to use the Athenaeum's services. The institution was founded in 1807 by the Anthology Club of Boston, Massachusetts.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “athenaeum” as:

Just as a museum is a place for the muses who inspire art, so an athenaeum is a place for Athena, the goddess of wisdom who inspires intellectual pursuits.

19th c.

In 1803, a young Harvard graduate by the name of Phineas Adams established the magazine The Monthly Anthology, or Magazine of Polite Literature. Adams left the New England area in 1804, having insufficient funds to continue the periodical; however, the printers Munroe and Francis convinced other young men to contribute to and continue the magazine under the new title of The Monthly Anthology and Boston Review. By 1805, these young men founded the Anthology Society.

The Boston Athenæum was founded in 1807 by members of the Anthology Society, literary individuals who began with a plan to have a reading room. The first librarian, William Smith Shaw, and the new trustees had ambitious plans for the Athenaeum. Basing their vision on the Athenaeum and Lyceum in Liverpool, England,their vision was expanded to include a library encompassing books in all subjects in English and foreign languages, a gallery of sculptures and paintings, collections of coins and natural curiosities, and even a laboratory. This ambitious design has evolved over the past two hundred years with some changes in focus (i.e. there is no chemistry lab) but remaining true to the ideal expressed in the institution's seal, chosen in 1814: Literarum fructus dulces, sweet are the fruits of letters.

The first yearly subscriptions were sold for ten dollars; only members were allowed to enter the Athenaeum’s rooms, although they could bring guests. The Athenaeum’s collections were initially non-circulating, meaning that even members could not check books out to take home.

At first, the Boston Athenæum rented rooms, then in 1809 bought a small house adjacent to the King's Chapel Burying Ground, and in 1822 moved into a mansion on Pearl Street, where a lecture hall and gallery space were added within four years.

In 1823, Shaw stepped down as librarian, and the King's Chapel Library, as well as the Theological Library belonging to the Boston Association of Ministers, was deposited in the Athenaeum. Work was begun on a shelf catalog in 1827. This same year, the art gallery was established, and the first annual exhibition opened. Measures were undertaken in 1830 to turn the collections into a circulating library. Once the Athenaeum became a circulating library, only four books were allowed to be checked out at a time.

By the early 1840s, Boston was a fast growing city. As a consequence, Pearl Street was built up by warehouses crowding around the Athenaeum building. The trustees moved to construct a new building in order to facilitate access to the Athenaeum. Land was acquired on Beacon Street overlooking the Old Granary Burying Ground, and the cornerstone was laid in 1847.

In 1849, the current location at 10½ Beacon Street opened. It was the first space designed for the Boston Athenæum’s specific needs. The first floor held the sculpture gallery; the second, the library; and the third, the paintings gallery.

The architect was Edward Clarke Cabot, an artist and dilettante whose design was selected because his ingenious arch over graves in the Granary Burial Ground allowed more space on all floors above the basement level. The neo-Palladian façade of “Patterson sandstone” was unique in Boston.

Charles Ammi Cutter became librarian in 1869, succeeding William Frederick Poole. Until this point, work on the comprehensive catalog of the library’s holdings had been uninspired. The Athenaeum’s exhibition area opened up when the Museum of Fine Arts moved the collections into their own space overlooking Copley Square. Cutter took advantage of the space; he used it to spread out the collections and to revise and complete the five-volume catalog. Cutter created his own classification system, known as Expansive Classification, in order to revise and finish the five-volume catalog. Later, the Cutter system became the basis for the Library of Congress classification system; the sections of call number used to alphabetically designate authors’ names in the LC system are still known as "Cutter numbers."

Many of the Trustees at the Boston Athenæum participated in the movement to create a separate museum in Boston. In the years 1872-1876, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts exhibited in the Athenaeum's gallery space while waiting for construction of its building to be complete. There would be no more annual exhibitions; shelves were installed and the library spread to the first and third floors.

20th-21st c.

In 1913-1914, when the Boston Athenæum employed the architectural firm of Bigelow and Wadsworth to expand the building, the fourth and fifth floors were set back so as not to disrupt the symmetry of the façade. This renovation not only fireproofed the building but also expanded the space, including addition of the beautiful fifth floor reading room, the fourth floor Trustees’ Room, and the much-needed shelving in the eleven levels of drum stacks from the basement to the third floor.

The Boston Athenæum was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1966.

Between 1999 and 2002, the Boston Athenæum undertook a major renovation to update its climate control system, gain more space for books, and add new gallery space on the first floor.

The Boston Athenæum celebrated its bicentennial in 2007.

The mission of the Boston Athenæum is to serve its members, the broader community, and scholars throughout the world by preserving and augmenting its collections of books and art, by providing library services and cultural programs, and by preserving and enhancing the unique atmosphere of its landmark building.

The Athenaeum's holdings currently include over 500,000 volumes, and the collections' strengths focus on Boston and New England history, biography, British and American literature, as well as fine and decorative arts. The Boston Athenæum’s rare and circulating books reflect the collecting interests of the Library as it has narrowed its focus from being encyclopedic in the 19th century to its current focus on the humanities and its large, historic collection of art includes paintings, sculpture, prints, photographs, and decorative arts.

The Athenaeum is open Mondays and Wednesdays from 8:30 to 8:00, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays 8:30 to 5:30, and Saturdays during the winter from 9 to 4. The Athenaeum is closed on Sundays, and on Saturdays during the summer. Members and their guests have access to the entire building; visitors may look through the galleries and the first floor. Researchers can make appointments to see items in the special collections. The Vershbow Special Collections Reading Room is open from 10 to 5, Tuesday through Friday.

It is located in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, near the Massachusetts State House.

Image gallery
  • Athenaeum, Pearl Street

  • Athenaeum, Pearl Street

  • Athenaeum, Beacon Street, 1855

  • Interior, 1855

  • Interior, 1855

  • Sumner staircase, ca.1880s

  • Statuary gallery, 19th c.

  • 1905