The Providence Athenaeum, a unique library and cultural center, welcomes and enriches the educational and cultural pursuits of its members and the community and encourages a diverse public to engage in spirited conversation. It offers a wide range of experiences by providing and conserving extraordinary collections, offering innovative and compelling programs, promoting and collaborating with the community's vibrant cultural sector, and highlighting and preserving its historic building.
The Providence Athenaeum, founded as "The Athenaeum" in 1836, is an independent, member-supported library open to the public. Its progenitors were two earlier libraries, The Providence Library Company, founded in 1753 and the Providence Athenaeum, founded in 1831; it became "The Providence Athenaeum" by amendment to its charter in 1850.
The Athenaeum is remarkable for its wide-ranging collections, its wonderful building and, most importantly, the people who know and love it. There are few institutions like it.
The Athenaeum's lineage derives in equal measure from ancient European libraries and societies and from early American ideals of self-reliance and community service. The Athenaeum is neither a public library, nor an academic library, nor a community center, nor a private club - it is a little bit of all these things and it is more. It is a community in the true sense of the word. It is a place that grounds us and brings us closer together.
Today it stands as a testament to the foresight and devotion of those who truly understand the power of the written word to inspire the mind and fire the imagination - and who understand the power of a physical space such as the Athenaeum to draw people together to a common purpose.
That purpose is simply to enrich life - to explore and better understand what it means to be human and, in so doing, come to know oneself and one's compatriots better.
Since its foundation, the Athenaeum has acquired books and other materials for the use and edification of its membership. A primary mission has always been to provide for a library of wider scope and depth than was in the means of any one member.
The library's history, which can be traced back 250 years, testifies to the success of this mission.
Over the past three decades the Athenaeum's presence in Providence has been expanding with an increasing array of opportunities for members and others to come together for cultural programming and social interaction.
Our handsome Greek Revival building was completed in 1838 to house the library's growing book collections. It is the only New England building designed by the great Philadelphia architect, William Strickland. Strickland designed graceful buildings in nine styles, but his major contribution to 19th century architecture was his inauguration of the Greek Revival based on the pure temple form, a movement that dominated American building from 1820 to 1850.
In 1914, local architect, Norman Isham, designed an addition at the SE corner of the building. This three level addition included closed storage space in the basement, a children’s library on the main level and open stacks on the third level.
In 1978, an award-winning renovation and new addition was completed, designed by the architect Warren Platner. The new wing included the Sayles Gorham Children's Library and the Philbrick Rare Book Room, a climate-controlled area for special collections and additional office space.
More renovations and structural upgrades have taken place in the last several years, primarily in the Bound Periodicals Room. This area once housed our bound periodicals and special fiction collections. The redesigned space complements our existing architectural integrity, while providing us with much-needed book storage and a conference room.
Before tax-supported libraries existed, libraries were organized either privately as stock companies (in which the purchase of a share made one an owner) or as an association of dues-paying members. When sufficient funds had been raised, these libraries rented or erected buildings, purchased books, and paid their librarians with the proceeds from dues, annual share assessments, or rental fees.
Once common across the United States, most membership libraries have either disappeared or been absorbed into public libraries. A few membership libraries continue to thrive, mostly in older cities where they may preserve architecturally significant buildings. Many hold special collections of rare books, prints, maps, photographs, and manuscripts of interest to scholars.
The Providence Athenaeum has been a 501(c)(3) since the 1970s. As a not-for-profit institution it enjoys its tax-exempt status because it is a resource of the community. Its collections are accessible to anyone who wishes to browse and the collections can be borrowed by anyone who pays the minimal yearly dues that help to cover annual operating expenses.
In celebration of the 250th anniversary of the Providence Athenaeum, Inquire Within: a Social History of the Providence Athenaeum since 1753 was published in April 2003.
The book was researched and written by author Jane Lancaster, Ph.D. and contains the full fascinating story of the Providence Athenaeum. Click here to read more about Inquire Within on our Publications page.