Boston Athenæum

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Boston Athenæum
Boston Athenaeum, Boston, Massachusetts.jpg
The Boston Athenæum building today, as designed by Edward Clarke Cabot with additions by Henry Forbes Bigelow
Location 10-1/2 Beacon Street, Boston, Massachusetts
Coordinates 42°21′28.96″N 71°3′43.77″W / 42.3580444°N 71.0621583°W / 42.3580444; -71.0621583Coordinates: 42°21′28.96″N 71°3′43.77″W / 42.3580444°N 71.0621583°W / 42.3580444; -71.0621583
Built 1847
Architect Cabot,Edward Clark; Bigelow & Wadsworth
Architectural style Neoclassical, Renaissance Revival
Governing body Private
Part of Beacon Hill Historic District (#66000130)
NRHP Reference # 66000132
Significant dates
Added to NRHP October 15, 1966[1]
Designated NHL December 21, 1965
Designated CP October 15, 1966
The seal of the Boston Athenæum

The Boston Athenæum is one of the oldest independent libraries in the United States. It is also one of a small number of extant membership libraries,[citation needed] meaning that patrons pay a yearly subscription fee to use the Athenæum's services. The institution was founded in 1807 by the Anthology Club of Boston, Massachusetts.[2] It is located at 10 1/2 Beacon Street on Beacon Hill.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “athenaeum” as:

  1. An association of persons interested in scientific and literary pursuits, meeting for the purpose of mutual improvement; a literary or scientific club;
  2. A building or institution in which books, periodicals, and newspapers are provided for use; a literary club-room, reading-room, library.

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

Resources of the Boston Athenæum include a large circulating book collection; a public gallery; a rare books collection of over 100,000 volumes; an art collection of 100,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs, and decorative arts; research collections including one of the world's most important collections of primary materials on the American Civil War; and a public forum offering lectures, readings, concerts, and other events. Special treasures include the largest portion of President George Washington's library from Mount Vernon, Houdin busts of Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Lafayette once owned by Thomas Jefferson, a first edition copy of Audubon's "Birds of America," an 1799 set of Goya's "Los caprichos," portraits by Gilbert Stuart, Chester Harding, and John Singer Sargent, and one of the most extensive collections of contemporary artists' books in the United States.[3]

The Boston Athenæum is also known for the many prominent writers, scholars, and politicians who have been members, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and Jr., John Quincy Adams, Margaret Fuller, Francis Parkman, Amy Lowell, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and Edward M. Kennedy.


19th century[edit]

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.

William Smith Shaw, librarian (c. 1807-1823)

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 Athenæum. Basing their vision on the Athenæum 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 Athenæum's rooms, although they could bring guests. The Athenæum’s collections were initially non-circulating, meaning that even members could not check books out to take home.[4]

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 Athenæum. 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 Athenæum became a circulating library, only four books were allowed to be checked out at a time.

Interior of the Athenæum, 10½ Beacon Street, c. 1855 (Southworth & Hawes)

10½ Beacon Street[edit]

By the early 1840s, Boston was a fast-growing city. As a consequence, Pearl Street was built up commercially, with warehouses crowding around the Athenæum building. The trustees moved to construct a new building in order to facilitate access to the Athenæum. 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 at the time, and remains so today. The Boston Athenæum included sculptures by John Frazee (sculptor).

Cutter Expansive Classification[edit]

Charles Ammi Cutter, librarian (c. 1869)

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 Athenæum’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."

Establishment of Museum of Fine Arts[edit]

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 Athenæum'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 centuries[edit]

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[clarification needed] 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.

Mission statement[edit]

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 Athenæum's holdings currently include over 600,000 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, maps and manuscripts reflect the collecting interests of the Library as it has narrowed its focus from encyclopedic in the 19th century to an emphasis on the humanities and its large, historic collection of art includes paintings, sculpture, prints, photographs, and decorative arts. Over 260 book funds, the oldest and largest of which was endowed by John Bromfield, Jr.. in 1845, support the addition more than 3,000 volumes per year to the collection.


The Boston Athenæum is open Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from (8:30 for members) 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.; Fridays (8:30 for members) 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and Sundays 12:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Members and their guests have access to the entire building; visitors may visit exhibitions in the Norma Jean Calderwood Gallery ($5 admission) and the first floor rooms and attend public events in the Long Room. Public tours of the entire National Historic Landmark building are offered free of charge by reservation.

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.

The Athenæum is located in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, a half block east of the Massachusetts State House and the Boston Common, and half block west of King's Chapel.

Image gallery[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2007-01-23. 
  2. ^ Boston Athenaeum. Change and Continuity: A Pictorial History of the Boston Athenaeum. Boston: Boston Athenaeum, 1976.
  3. ^ Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, "Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collection for the Boston Athenæum" (Boston, Boston Athenæum, 2006).
  4. ^ For context, see: List of libraries in 19th-century Boston, Massachusetts

Further reading[edit]

  • Josiah Quincy III, The History of the Boston Athenæum, with Biographical Notices of its Deceased Founders. Cambridge, MA., Metcalf and Company, 1851.
  • The Athenæum Centenary, The Influence and History of the Boston Athenæum from 1807 to 1907 with a Record of its Officers and Benefactors and a Complete List of Proprietors. Boston, The Boston Athenæum, 1907. Google books
  • Robert F. Perkins, Jr. & William J. Gavin III, editors, The Boston Athenæum Art Exhibition Index, 1827-1874. Boston, MA, The Boston Athenæum, 1980.

External links[edit]