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HomeHistoryThe Providence Athenaeum: a Rhode Island Treasure

The Providence Athenaeum: a Rhode Island Treasure

The Providence Athenaeum: a Rhode Island Treasure

Condé Nast Traveler lists the Providence Athenaeum as one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. And if you love books the Providence Athenaeum is the place for you. Books are stuck in every nook and cranny of the building. There are also sculptures, paintings, busts, and prints adorning the space. I was surprised to find that this wonderful library even welcomes pets, canine and feline.

The library is one of only 17 membership libraries in the United States and last year welcomed more than 55,000 visitors. The library has 1,200 active members and a collection that includes an estimated 180,000 items, both contemporary and rare materials. The Greek revival-style building, following the form of a Greek temple, was designed by renowned Philadelphia architect William Strickland and was constructed out of granite quarried in Johnston, Rhode Island. The library building has had a number of significant additions over the years. 

When the Providence Athenaeum first opened in 1838, Brown University President, Francis Wayland, remarked at the opening of the building:

“This organization exists to provide the means for the universal distribution of knowledge.”

This independent and member-supported library and cultural center are located on historic Benefit Street. In its 200 year history, the library has welcomed writers, philosophers, and members of the community to engage in conversation and debate. The Athenaeum’s core mission is to encourage a love of reading and learning.

One of the Athenaeum’s most famous visitors was Edgar Allan Poe. In September of 1848, Poe traveled to Providence in order to meet and court wealthy Rhode Island widow Sarah Helen Whitman. They met at the library and Whitman showed Poe a poem called Ulalume, published anonymously in the library’s copy of the American Whig Review. Poe revealed himself as the author and signed his name in pencil next to the poem. Whitman discovered it still there years later, and the book and signature remain in the Athenaeum’s Special Collections.

The library’s many programs are described on their website:

“Our library is and has always been open to the public, and all are encouraged to peruse the collections while inside. The vast majority of our programs including our Friday night Salon series are free and open to the public, and all are welcome to attend. Our Children’s Library offers an array of free events, storytimes, and quiet nooks in which to curl up and read.”

The Athenaeum Salon series welcomes some of the country’s most celebrated writers, historians, artists, scientists, and cultural leaders to address an engaged audience of members and the public. The topics range from Homer’s Odyssey to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, from the natural world to contemporary theater, from pub quizzes to poetry.

Members of the Athenaeum enjoy many benefits including borrowing privileges, prioritized access to library programs, and exclusive communications. Join a unique community of cultural leaders and readers. All are welcome. 

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