An "omniumgatherum" is a miscellaneous collection. The definition of this ridiculous word is your first fascinating fact! The Athenaeum has found that there is simply no way that you can exist for over 250 years without accumulating some bizarrities. Following are some of the more unusual histories, facts, legends, and lunacies behind the Providence Athenaeum!
In the June of 1953 the board of the Athenaeum authorized a change in regulations: "A shareholder's dog, if on a leash, may accompany his master or mistress into the library."
In September, Annie Cooke, the librarian, reported "no startling results to date" involving the Athenaeum's hairy new patrons. Since then two of the Athenaeum's executive directors have brought their dogs to work.
Dogs of members are still very much welcome in the Athenaeum today. All repeat caninine visitors head directly for the jar of dog biscuits kept below the Circulation Desk upon entry to the library! (From Inquire Within)
The Athenaeum was the backdrop for several turning points in the romance between Edgar Allan Poe and Sarah Helen Whitman. A lifelong resident of Providnce, Whitman was considered one of the "best female poets of America" and enjoyed an almost three-quarters of a century relationship with the Athenaeum.
Greatly admiring the writings of one another long before they had corresponded or met, Poe, on a visit to Providence, saw Whitman for the first time in her rose garden behind her house on Benefit St. Poe later claimed that it was upon this first glance of Whitman that he fell in love with her.
The two would visit the Athenaeum together during their brief yet intense courtship. The relationship even met its end among the alcoves of the library. On December 23, 1848, Poe and Whitman were visiting the Athenaeum when an unnamed someone handed her a note that said Poe had broken his promise and had been drinking again. Whitman immediately called off the wedding, left the library and rushed back to her house.
The two would never see each other again and Poe was dead within a year. Whitman would live for almost thirty more years,
continuing to spend much
of her time at the Athenaeum.
The Scruples shelf was the equivalent of “Banned in Boston” and kept authors such as D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller and others, safely out of the view of young innocent eyes.
The books were originally kept in a drawer known by the staff as “the sewer,” under the circulation desk. The practice of segregating the books started in 1922 and continued until 1971 when the Board of Directors voted that it be “scrupulously and without fanfare desegregated and redistributed.”
When the books eventually appearead on the open shelves two formal complaints were made, both to the effect that it was a terrible inconvenience that all the "best" books were now spread across the library. (From Inquire Within)
Forty years ago or more, when the doors of the Athenaeum used to be closed from 12 to 2 o'clock, Mrs. Whitman frequently spent those hours there alone. One summer's day, when the librarian returned from dinner, he found Mrs. W in a state of considerable excitement, which she explained by saying that while walking up and down the hall, as was her custom, busily engaged in reading, she suddenly found herself confronted by a strange-looking animal, with eyes too large and ears too long for a cat, sitting up directly in front of her, and boldly looking her in the face.
Somewhat startled by the unexpected apparition, it was not strange that she gave a little scream, whereupon the creature quickly disappeared, and had not been seen again. What could it have been? She was a little afraid that her imagination was growing too active, and was playing her tricks.
The librarian was able to relieve her fears, however, by going to a favorite hiding-place of a tame rabbit, belonging to one of the neighbors, which often slipped into the library and played around in the alcoves, and which had come in that day unobserved, and had been locked in with Mrs. Whitman. The poor creature was as much frightened as Mrs. W. had been, but they never were afriad of each other afterwards -- the lady, especially, having gained a wonderful accession of courage from having been able to frighten a rabbit!
The Gothic fountain outside the Athenaeum was built in 1873 from funds donated by Mrs. Anna Richmond. Fed directly from the Pawtuxet River, the words "Come here everyone that thirsteth" are carved into the granite.
Legend has it that visitors who drink the water are sure to return. Today, due to the age and condition of the fountain and its water source, a drink may mean you'll never leave - except via ambulance. So please refrain from sampling the water, but enjoy the handsome fountain and its legendary past!
From the installation of gas lighting, the introduction of the first telephone, to the jump to an online catalog, click here to see a timeline of technology at the Athenaeum!
When Providence's oldest cultural center meets the digital culture of the Web, interesting things result! Click any of the links below to explore the Athenaeum's footprint in cyberspace.
“I came here as if to an oasis. The Athenaeum was where I did my hunting and pecking, just like Darwin’s finches. I read an essay in here by Ralph Waldo Emerson which starts, ‘The sun shines today also’ – it rang a gong, made me feel that what is happening now is connected to the past – it was the thrill of the new connecting with the old.” (Jonathan Weiner, 2001)
“I have long thought the Providence Athenaeum the most delightful of libraries. It is half up and half down the hill so that you may go in on one level and come out higher up, which is what any library should do for one…” (Reverend Gaius Glenn Atkins, 1927)
"It has been said with much truth that the presence of the Athenaeum is alone a sufficient reason for living in Providence." (William E. Foster, longtime librarian of the Providence Public Library)
"I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library." (Jorge Luis Borges)