The Boston Athenæum is one of the oldest independent libraries in the United States. It is also one of a small number of extant membership libraries, meaning that patrons pay a yearly subscription fee to use the Athenæum's services. The institution was founded in 1807 by the Anthology Club of Boston, Massachusetts. It is located at 10 1/2 Beacon Street on Beacon Hill.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “athenaeum” as:
- An association of persons interested in scientific and literary pursuits, meeting for the purpose of mutual improvement; a literary or scientific club;
- A building or institution in which books, periodicals, and newspapers are provided for use; a literary club-room, reading-room, library.
Just as a museum is a place for the muses who inspire art, so an athenæum is a place for Athena, the goddess of wisdom who inspires intellectual pursuits.
Resources of the Boston Athenæum include a large circulating book collection; a public gallery; a rare books collection of over 100,000 volumes; an art collection of 100,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs, and decorative arts; research collections including one of the world's most important collections of primary materials on the American Civil War; and a public forum offering lectures, readings, concerts, and other events. Special treasures include the largest portion of President George Washington's library from Mount Vernon, Houdin busts of Washington, Benjamin Franklin
, and Lafayette once owned by Thomas Jefferson, a first edition copy of Audubon's "Birds of America," an 1799 set of Goya's "Los caprichos," portraits by Gilbert Stuart, Chester Harding, and John Singer Sargent, and one of the most extensive collections of contemporary artists' books in the United States.
The Boston Athenæum is also known for the many prominent writers, scholars, and politicians who have been members, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and Jr., John Quincy Adams
, Margaret Fuller, Francis Parkman, Amy Lowell
, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and Edward M. Kennedy.