Established in 1807, Boston Athenæum remains one of the oldest private libraries in the United States. As membership grew, the organization added a collection of art, as well as thousands of rare books. By the 1850s, it was the center of Boston's literary and cultural scene as well as one of the largest libraries in the United States. Maintained as a private library that the public can visit, the collection includes over half a million books as well as a variety of rare and unique artifacts and works of art. The Atheneum sponsors numerous lectures, art exhibits, and concerts, as well as structured discussions where community members can engage with authors and scholars.
According to the Boston
Athenaeum’s website, the purpose of creating
the group was to form an establishment similar to that of the Athenæum
and Lyceum of Liverpool in Great Britain; combining the advantages of a public
library [and] containing the great works of learning and science in all
languages. The institution was modeled after the
Athenæum and Lyceum of Liverpool, England. The name itself is a reference to
the Greek goddess Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom. The library
collection is particularly robust in areas related to the American literature
and the history of Boston and New England.
Boston librarian named William Smith Shaw formed the Anthology Society in
1805. Two years later, the society voted
to create a Library to hold to Society’s collection and the Boston Athenæum was
born. After growing out of several spaces during the
next forty years, the group constructed the current building on Beacon
Street. Construction began in 1847 and
the Library was ready to open in 1849. Initially,
the building consisted of only three stories.
There was a sculpture gallery on the first floor, the books were housed
on the second floor and the third floor was a large space used as a painting
gallery for artists, such as the building’s designer, Edward Clark Cabot. Cabot was an architect and most notably an
artist. Later, the served as a Trustee
of the Anthenaeum (1857-1875).
1913-1914, the building underwent extensive improvements to add the fourth and
fifth floors and to make the structure fireproof in order to protect the vast
collection inside. The renovations were designed
by Architect Henry Forbes Bigelow, a partner in the firm Bigelow and
Wadsworth. The galleries overlook the historic Granary
Burying Ground. In 1966, the Boston
Athenaeum was designated as a National Historic Landmark.
Most of the Library’s
offerings are available only to members, but visitors can browse through a
portion of the first floor, including the Norma Jean Calderwood Gallery, the
Bayard Henry Long Room, and G. d'Andelot Belin Bow Room. The Anthenaeum also offers non-members a
glimpse of the building during one of its regularly scheduled Art and Architecture Tours. The hour-long tours are offered four times
each week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3:00 p.m., Sundays
at 1:00 p.m., and Mondays at 5:30 p.m.