Athenaeums, Not Quite a New Concept

I was looking at news stories on my NPR news app this past weekend,    and I came across this story: Athena’s Library, The Quirky Pillar of Providence. The library in this news piece is an athenaeum, a social library.

More than 100 years ago, athenaeums were popular, with people packed out visiting and socializing in these buildings. Books were available to checkout, but social and civic engagement were important characteristics of these unique libraries. Athenaeum’s would hold theater performances, art collections, literary lectures, regular lectures and so much more.

This type of library is about community, and providing a social space for people to share ideas, learn new information and collaborate with one another. The Providence Athenaeum is open to the public, but a membership is required to access certain materials of the library. For an annual fee of $160, an individual can borrow any materials from the library and attend all events at the athenaeum, among other privileges (college students can join for $35 a year). At first I thought charging people to use the library’s services went against library values, but it’s not such a bad idea. It’s a way to receive funding for the library to maintain collections and provide events.

Reading about this library made me aware that “new librarianship” characteristics were present long before my time. It seems now that these qualities that made athenaeum’s are now loudly waking up and leaping into the 21st century.

*Photo courtesy of


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