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Mission & History

  • Boston Athenaeum. Wood-engraving. Page 43 in Edward Stanwood, Boston Illustrated. Boston: James R. Osgood, 1873.
  • Boston Athenaeum. Photograph by J. Woolf, 2013.
  • Boston Athenæum Front 1852
  • Boston Athenæum Front 1855

Mission

The mission of the Boston Athenæum is to serve its members, the broader community, and scholars throughout the world by preserving and augmenting its collections of books and art, by providing library services and cultural programs, and by preserving and enhancing the unique atmosphere of its landmark building.

History

Founded in 1807, the Boston Athenæum is one of the oldest and most distinguished independent libraries and cultural institutions in the United States. It grew out of a slightly earlier organization known as the Anthology Society which had been formed in 1805 by a group of Bostonians with the primary purpose of producing a magazine that they called The Monthly Anthology and Boston Review. In creating the Boston Athenæum, their purpose was to form "an establishment similar to that of the Athenæum and Lyceum of Liverpool in Great Britain; combining the advantages of a public library [and] containing the great works of learning and science in all languages." The new Athenæum flourished in culture-starved Boston and, as it voraciously acquired books, art, and artifacts, it grew rapidly. In 1827, it added an Art Gallery and began a series of yearly exhibitions of American and European art. For nearly half a century the Athenæum was the unchallenged center of intellectual life in Boston, and by 1851, had become one of the largest libraries in the United States. Today its collections comprise over half a million volumes, with particular strengths in Boston history, New England state and local history, biography, English and American literature, and the fine and decorative arts. The Athenæum supports a dynamic exhibition program and sponsors a lively variety of events such as lectures and concerts. It also serves as a stimulating center for discussions among scholars, bibliophiles, and a variety of community-interest groups.

History of the Building

The Athenæum's collections resided briefly in a group of structures known as Joy's buildings on Congress Street, but by the spring of 1807, it was firmly established in Scollay's buildings on Tremont Street near the present site of Government Center. The Athenæum remained in that location until 1809, when the Trustees purchased the Rufus Amory House, adjacent to the King's Chapel Burial Ground at what was then the easternmost point of the Boston Common. In 1822, the growing collections were moved again, this time to a mansion on Pearl Street that had been given to the Athenæum by Trustee James Perkins. In 1847, construction began on the Athenæum's present Beacon Street building, designed by Edward Clarke Cabot and opened two years later in 1849. The first floor was originally a sculpture gallery, the second floor housed the library's growing collection of books, and the third floor, which was originally the top floor of the building and was equipped with skylights, served as a painting gallery. The building was completely renovated in 1913-1914, at which time the fourth and fifth floors were added and the entire structure fireproofed. Architect Henry Forbes Bigelow designed these improvements.

The Athenæum's five galleried floors overlook the peaceful Granary Burying Ground, and, as Gamaliel Bradford wrote in 1931, "it is safe to say that [no library] anywhere has more an atmosphere of its own, that none is more conducive to intellectual aspiration and spiritual peace." The building was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1966.

For more historic information about the Boston Athenæum, see The Athenæum Centenary: The Influence and History of the Boston Athenæum from 1807 to 1907 (58 MB download) or The History of the Boston Athenæum, with Biographical Notices of its Deceased Founders.