The Providence Athenæum as we know it was founded and incorporated in 1836 after a previous Providence Athenæum (est. 1831) and the Providence Library Company (est. 1753) could not agree on terms for a merger. Both organizations dissolved and formed a new library, which included the collections of both earlier institutions.
This new organization, known initially as simply The Athenæum, would later change its name to the Providence Athenæum in 1850. One hundred ninety-five men, two women, and four business firms contributed to the initial raising of funds. Originally housed in the Arcade downtown on Weybosset Street, the Athenæum opened the doors of its completed Benefit Street home on July 11, 1838, accompanied by the Franklin Society, a scientific and philosophic club, which occupied what is now the Reading Room. The Franklin Society moved out in 1848, and the Athenæum built a staircase connecting the main floor to our now downstairs Reading Room.
The Athenæum continued to attract members and obtain materials throughout the nineteenth century. Some notable acquisitions were the Description de l’Egypte, an enormous 23-volume set depicting Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in the late eighteenth century, and The Hours, an ivory miniature painted by Newport-born Edward Greene Malbone in 1801 (both of which can be seen in the Art and Special Collection sections of our site). Some famous frequenters of the library included author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who on at least one occasion snacked on crackers as she “read Egypt at the Ath,” and future Secretary of State John Hay, who described Providence as “shrined in my memory as a far-off, mystical Eden, where the women were lovely and spirited and the men were jolly and brave; where I used to haunt the rooms of the Athenæum, made holy by the presence of the royal dead…”
In 1872, the Athenæum hired its first female employee, Mary Angell, as assistant librarian. As part of her duties, she began working on the card catalog which still sits on the library’s main floor. Her handwritten cards from the nineteenth century can still be found inside (be sure to take a look!). Mary’s work was continued by Grace Leonard, a cataloger hired in 1895 to use the Dewey decimal system to reclassify and catalog the library’s 56,000 volumes over the course of 13 years. Grace later became the library’s first female head librarian and worked at the Athenæum for a total of 46 years.
The Athenæum has physically expanded twice, once in 1914 with an addition designed by local architect Norman Morrison Isham and once in 1979 with an addition designed by award-winning architect Warren Platner. Both expansions were a result of a need for increased storage for the collection and to create space for the library’s ever-popular children’s services. The Athenæum has always welcomed our community’s youngest members, and continues to do so into the twenty-first century.
For more information on the Athenæum’s history, please see Inquire Within, A Social History of the Providence Athenæum from 1753, available for browsing, check out, or purchase at the library. The above short history is indebted to author Jane Lancaster’s work.