Library Blog

A Visit to the Boston Athenaeum

Thursday, November 16, 2023

I always enjoy visiting other membership libraries (and you can too, as we have reciprocal privileges with many of them). In late October, I joined my fellow membership libraries group directors at the Boston Athenaeum for our annual meeting.

These annual meetings are always instructive, educational, and enlightening. I wouldn’t be the first in the group to steal some good ideas from my colleagues. We talked about the challenges of running our unique institutions, like fundraising, increasing and diversifying membership, and our ever-present concerns about running out of space. But we talked about opportunities too - and the fact that we are all bullish on books and excited to serve new generations of readers.

One of the highlights of my time in Boston was a tour of the recently renovated Boston Athenaeum building, and a visit to their new exhibition and special collections department. The Athenaeum’s first floor is open to nonmembers ($10 fee), and includes the art gallery with exhibits that rotate approximately every three months, an open “living room” where you can read, talk, play backgammon, or just watch the tourists – and the hawks! - roaming through the Granary Burial Ground behind the building. There’s also a new exhibition gallery; don’t miss the wonderful exhibition Developing Boston: Berenice Abbott & Irene Schwachman Photograph a Changing City, which will be on view until the end of the year. Eventually, permits permitting, there will also be a café called Folio on the ground floor.

Day passes can be had for $40 to use the members-only reading and study spaces above the first floor. This includes the fabulous drums of book stacks (I might have gone looking to be sure they had a history of the New York Society Library there; they did), the quiet reading and study floors, and more member “living rooms” for conversations. The Trustees Room holds a collection of George Washington’s books; unfortunately, the ones he borrowed from us but that have disappeared are not among them.

Our group was also treated to a fascinating presentation of some of the treasures of the Athenaeum by Head of Special Collections John Buchtel. In their new education center, he showed us one of the institution’s strangers’ books, which logs the eminent visitors to the institution, inventive artists’ books, and even a history of balloons (Gaston Tissandier’s Histoire des ballons et des aéronautes célèbres) which boasts a gorgeously embellished embroidered cover.

If you are thinking of visiting the Boston Athenaeum, feel free to reach out to me for an introduction, and have your New York Society Library card handy. The Athenaeum is located at 10 ½ Beacon Street and is open 6 days a week. 

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