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The Providence Athenaeum serves community for 200 years

Historic library experiences membership boost, retains cultural value

The Providence Athenaeum is currently open to members and awaits a broader re-opening to the general public.
The Providence Athenaeum is currently open to members and awaits a broader re-opening to the general public.

Visited by the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, Sarah Helen Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Providence Athenæum, founded in 1836, is one of just 21 member-funded libraries still open in the U.S. The Providence Library Company and original Providence Athenæum combined their collections and dissolved to form the current Athenæum situated on Benefit Street. Citizens of Providence formed the library with the intention of pooling funds in order to collect a greater number of books than a single community member could manage. According to Robin Wetherill, director of membership and external relations, “The Athenæum is a historic library and cultural center. It’s a library, museum, event space, special collection and historic collection all in one. We often get people comparing it to the library in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ or Hogwarts because it has a special magical quality to it.”

Anthenaeums are institutions that hold books for advanced learning, particularly in subjects of science and literary arts. But beyond this scope, the Athenæum in Providence prides itself on its unique cultural value as both a community space and a collection of the past. “Our mission is to enrich the mind, inspire the spirit and elevate the public discourse,” Wetherill said. “People get married here, get engaged here, and that’s really special, to be this sort of cultural touchstone for people.” The library hosts events at night in the downstairs Reading Room; works with both Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design to arrange student events, deals and member benefits; and even supplies treats for visitors’ dogs, which are allowed in the library and inducted as members. 

What the Athenæum prides itself on, though, is its dedication to reflecting the actual Providence community. Known for its rare book collections and constantly changing exhibits, the library purposefully selects items reflecting “the reading taste of Providence from the 1830s until now,” Wetherill said. “We have items because people wanted to read them, not just because they’re rare or special. There are not many institutions like this where members and normally non-members are able to access this time capsule … it’s a really community-centered institution.”

Aware of its proximity to both the University and to RISD, Wetherill discussed how the Athenæum takes pride in its relationship with both institutions and its status as an incredible study spot. Wetherill mentioned that she constantly sees students studying on the Mezzanine level or in the Reading Room, and that student membership has increased significantly in the past year. 

“I was introduced to the Athenæum when I first toured Brown and it was part of what made me want to come to Brown!” Kate Van Riper ’23, a current Athenæum member, wrote to The Herald. “I’m an English major and it feels very cool to be a part of the same library that authors like Edgar Allen Poe were.”

Daniel Newgarden ’25, also an Athenæum member, said that he “joined because it seemed like a pretty nice place to study in and because the rare books seemed interesting to look at.” He also likes “that it’s quiet, it’s got good lighting, comfortable chairs and just a really cool environment, especially the downstairs Reading Room.”

Illustrating the cultural importance of the Athanæum and its contributions as a social center for students, Van Riper said, “Pre-COVID, I went to the Athenæum a few times a week. It’s one of my favorite places to study or relax. I have really nice memories of studying and talking with friends there as I adjusted to college life.”

While the Athenæum remained closed for much of the COVID-19 pandemic and is currently only open to members, staff have used this time to complete repairs or touch-ups. While changes in the past included adding a children’s area, a climate-controlled rare book room and an upper-level mezzanine, staff recently focused on fixing up the art room, expanding the collections, finalizing a gift shop and diversifying the busts present in the library to include people of color and women. Asked about any future plans, Wetherill said that the library would be implementing Zoom into its programming by simulcasting all of its events and focusing more on the visitor experience. “When we’ve fully opened back up, we’ll have more tours, fun facts and make people feel as if this is a place to visit,” she said. 

As for when the library will open back up to non-members, Wetherill identified four criteria: declining COVID-19 cases, declining hospitalization levels, a test-postivity rate below 3% and a “low or moderate transmission environment.” “We want to open as soon as we can,” she added.  

“Any city that doesn’t have an athanaeum or membership library is missing something ... The Athenæum has been at the cultural heart of this city for 200 years and we’re going strong,” Wetherill said. “We’ve seen membership explode, we’ve seen support for this institution increase, and so it’s really exciting.”



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