Athena's Adaptation

a 19th century library in the 21st century

by by Natalie Villacorta

illustration by by Robert Sandler

When people step into the Providence Athenaeum for the first time, they take their first breath of 19th century air and gaze up at the colorful shelves crammed with crumbling books. They carefully climb the creaking narrow stairs to run hands over leather-bound books, their fingers coming away covered in ash-colored dust. For visitors used to the cold glow of computer screens, the Athenaeum feels more like a museum than a library.

Despite its reverence for the past, the Athenaeum is by no means stuck in it. The library is still a place for scholarship and solitude, but it also a place for conversation and cultural exchange and many of the books still circulate. This balance between staying relevant and staying true to its history is the reason why the library has survived wars, natural disasters, and depressions.

“It would be really hard to do an elevator pitch about this place unless it was a really tall building,” said Christina Bevilacqua, director of programs and public engagement.

The Providence Athenaeum was founded in 1836 and moved to its current location two years later, a Greek revival temple at 251 Benefit Street designed by William Strickland. Often eclipsed by the much larger libraries on College Hill, the Athenaeum is unknown to many college students, but cherished by its members for whom it is much more than a library.

The Athenaeum is one of 18 remaining memberships libraries in the country—many of which are located in major East coast cities including Boston and Philadelphia. Unlike public libraries, membership libraries do not rely on municipal funds. The Athenaeum has 1,000 members who pay $160 per year or $195 for a family, $35 for college students. But these dues account for less than 20 percent of the library’s budget — nearly half of which comes from the endowment. And while anyone may study in the library, only members have borrowing privileges.

Contributing to the learning of all Providence residents, not just members, has always been a part of the Athenaeum’s mission, as stated in the original 1753 record of the Providence Library Company, its progenitor. The yellowed tome, with hand-scripted pages that have fallen away from their binding, lists the first members of the Athenaeum, who each paid 25 pounds sterling to join.

In 1758, there was a fire at the library’s first quarters—the Council Chambers of the Town House—situated a few blocks north of the current building. Only 71 of the 345 b, representing 60 titles, that were checked out at the time survived. Of these, 45 original books remain today and are housed in the library’s climate-controlled rare book room with other tomes published in 1870 or earlier.

The oldest book in the library is an illuminated manuscript from the late 13th Century. The greased, wrinkly, gilt-edged pages are made from vellum—pig intestine—and ruled with ink to aid the precise penmanship. It is a Latin book of wisdom entitled “De Studio Sapientae” that the library paid $120 for in 1883.

Inside the December 1847 issue of the journal “The American Review,” kept in the rare books room, is an anonymous poem entitled, “Ulalume: A Ballad.” Sarah Helen Whitman, resident of 16 Church Street, just down the road from the library, suspected that her lover, Edgar Allen Poe, had written it because of the writing style and morbid subject matter (the death of a beautiful woman).

One afternoon when the lovers were in the Athenaeum—where they used to court—Whitman asked if Poe was the poem’s author. He pulled the book off the shelf and signed his name in affirmation. The signature, in unassuming, pencil script still graces the page today. Whitman and Poe keep watch over the library from their portraits in the second-floor art room.

Unearthing stories like this one is the reason why Kate Wodehouse, special collections librarian, loves her job. “Every book has a story to me … and it’s not just what the text is,” Wodehouse said. She looks through the library’s annual reports and reference works on Rhode Island families to find each book’s story: how the Athenaeum came to acquire it, who previously owned it, and who read it. This information says a lot about the library, as its collection is dictated by the literary tastes of its members.

John Hay, for whom the John Hay library is named, was also a friend of Whitman and a member of the Athenaeum. He graduated from Brown in 1858, when the University was still very religious, so he would visit the Athenaeum to read material unavailable further up the Hill, like “The Hasheeh Eater” by Fitz Hugh Ludlow, a then popular book about the effects of cannabis extract, which Hay admitted to experimenting with.

“I used to haunt the rooms of the Athenaeum, made holy by the presence of the royal dead,” Hay wrote in a letter to a friend, most likely in reference to Poe.

Although the library no longer has the money to purchase rare books, Wodehouse still acquires books using the 55 specialized funds for material as specific as books by or about Virginia Woolf or as strange as the Elmer S. Blistein fund “For all books except cats and cookery.” The historical collection it does have grows in value as it ages: the $1.25 the library paid in 1855 for the first edition of “Leaves of Grass,” signed by Walt Whitman, was certainly a good deal.

But the Athenaeum is more than a museum of ancient objects preserved in amber. New books are added to the shelves every day, and its members are very much alive. During the spring and fall, the library hosts programs open to the public at least once a week. The staff knows that the library must adapt if it’s going to survive, but they always keep the library’s history is always in the back of their minds.

In 2005, the Athenaeum sold one of its prized possessions, John Audubon’s Birds of America, for $5 million. The highly controversial decision was made to ensure the future of the library, whose endowment was shrinking and financial situation was dire.

A minority of the members took the case to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, claiming the loss of their rights as shareholders. But the court ruled in favor of the library on the grounds that members had ceased to be shareholders when the library became a nonprofit in 1974. Until the sale, the Athenaeum was among the few remaining original subscribers of the 200 sets of folios printed with life-sized, colorful birds. People missing the Birds can take a short walk up the hill to the John Hay library, which always has a set of Birds on display.

It was after this rough patch that Allison Maxell became executive director of the Athenaeum and hired Christina Bevilacqua as director of programs and public engagement. Bevilacqua brought the Athenaeum back to life.

She knew programs needed to cater to a culturally sophisticated audience and that competition for this audience was tough given the dozens of other forms of entertainment available in Providence. She wanted to work against the stereotype of snobbery that a membership library may give off. After all, the idea behind forming the Athenaeum was to pool resources to create a collective educational community space.

She was reminded of the 19th Century—when people were “tremendously intellectually curious” and embraced variety and conversation. That’s how she got her idea for the salons—something “so arcane that it is new again,” she said.

Every Friday night during the spring and fall for the past seven years, the Athenaeum has hosted salons — conversations on subjects including art, literature, history, science, and theater—which draw an average of 120 guests. The Athenaeum also hosts a Proust reading group, poetry competitions, and events for children. Since last fall, anyone, not just members, may attend events.

John Chiafalo, 58, of Smith Hill, has been a member for 10 years and rarely misses a salon. The Athenaeum is his home away from home. It is his social life. His “university.” His “graduate program.” His “refuge.” His “old-fashioned men’s club” where he can “settle into one of the chairs and wile away the time.”

“It’s one of the few regrets I have in my life that I waited so long to join,” Chiafalo said.

He is not the “traditional” kind of member, he said. He doesn’t come from the East Side. He didn’t get a college degree until he was 40. He isn’t employed. But “they have totally embraced me,” he said. He can sit down with a Chafee, a doctor or a lawyer, and “we’re both Athenaeum members.”

“A lot of people come in precisely not to indulge in the digital world,” said Nancy Whitcomb, children’s librarian assistant. Eight or nine years ago, when the Children’s Library had two computers, kids were constantly throwing temper-tantrums and parents were annoyed that their children weren’t interested in reading. “Finally, a mother said, ‘Get rid of those things…I don’t bring my children to the library to play on the computer, I bring them to look at books,’” said Lindsay Shaw, the children’s librarian.

The absence of computers is essential to the 19th century ambience. It is impossible to tell that in every nook and cranny of this temple of learning patrons can connect to the Internet, wirelessly. In 2009, the library received federal funding to install this invisible system in order to preserve the feeling visitors have of walking into history — Golda herself sits at a computer “behind the scenes.”

“It’s a 19th Century library that we’re maintaining in the 21st Century,” Golda said.

Since 1999, the library’s catalogue has been automated. It contains every book the library has acquired since 1998, as well as any book acquired before then that has been checked out. People looking for items not found in the online catalogue must use the card catalogue. Thousands of cards are organized by title, author, and subject crammed into little drawers.

This antiquated way of doing things is part of the library’s charm. But it’s easy to imagine a day when the card catalogue will no longer be necessary. Already most of the books old enough to be missing from the online catalogue are not allowed to circulate. Any book 60 years or older must be read within the library walls.

While the library still looks much like its 19th century self, it works to stay up to date in other ways. The library has a Facebook account, a Twitter handle, and a blog, called “Ravenus,” a play on words tribute to the library’s patron poet, Edgar Allan Poe. These efforts “came from me wanting to be out there…to have a face beyond these walls,” Golda said. “We don’t want to be forgotten.”

The Athenaeum also purchased a Kindle and a Nook for patrons to borrow if they want to read a book with a long waiting list. But as any book-lover knows, these are not replacements for the real thing. At the Athenaeum, patrons can hold books in their hands that historical figures have read from. That kind of inspiration is irreplaceable.

“We’re trying to live in both worlds,” she said. “We draw from a past, we live in the present, and we are constantly looking at the future.”

NATALIE VILLACORTA B’13 lives in both worlds.