The Rare Book Collection of the Boston Athenæum reflects the collecting interests of the Library as it has narrowed its focus from being encyclopedic in the 19th century to its current focus on the humanities. While there are surprising examples of early works on many subjects in the Athenæum, researchers should expect to find depth in certain specific subject areas.
Early American history is a particular strength with resources in the Library’s extraordinary collections of early American imprints, 18th and 19th century tracts, early United States government documents, early American broadsides, publications in Native American languages, early Boston newspapers, imprints of the Confederate States of America, and portions of the personal libraries of Cardinal Cheverus, Henry Knox, and George Washington.
The Library also houses the King’s Chapel Collection of mostly 17th century theological works, the Brimmer Collection of 18th and early 19th century European books on the fine arts, the Groome Gypsy Collection, the Danforth Alchemy Collection, and the Merrymount Press Collection.
Also, the Library's collections include author collections featuring the works of Lord Byron, John Masefield, T. S. Eliot, and John Fowles, and an extensive collection on the art of the book including bookbinding, fine printing, and contemporary artists’ books.
The Athenæum's collection of manuscripts grew steadily from the founding of the institution, but it was not until the stewardship of Librarian Charles Knowles Bolton (ca. 1900) that efforts were first made to develop and organize this material.
The collection includes personal and family papers, genealogical records, organizational and business records, literary manuscripts and sketchbooks, as well as merchants’ records and ships’ logbooks. Significant manuscripts in the collection include the papers of Athenæum Trustee Samuel Eliot; the Revolutionary War-era papers of Ezekiel Price; the William Tudor papers; papers of Commodore Isaac Hull; and papers of architects Charles Bulfinch, Alexander Parris, George Minot Dexter, Nathaniel Bradlee, John H. Sturgis, Ogden Codman, and Richard Clipston Sturgis.
Also in the collection are artists' papers, such as those of Amasa Hewins, Isaac Sprague, Cephas Thompson, Cecilia Beaux, Francesca Alexander, and John Singer Sargent, and papers of merchant John Perkins Cushing, African American lawyer and abolitionist, Robert Morris, and showmen P.T. Barnum and Moses Kimball.
Corporate collections include the records of the Provident Institution for Savings, the second savings bank to be established in the United States, which came as a gift to the Athenæum in 1993. The letters and diaries of Massachusetts soldiers in the Civil War are primary resources that complement the Library’s world-class printed and visual collections. Modern additions to the collection include the papers of historian Stewart Mitchell, and the papers of long-time Boston School Committee member Joseph Lee.