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A Tale of Two Libraries
In the Boston Athenæum’s long history of collecting, one relationship stands out: the sharing of books between the London Library and the Athenæum, a cultural partnership that endured both World Wars. In the mid-20th century, the Athenæum hired an agent, Librarian Christopher Purnell of the London Library, for the purpose of compiling a list of works published by English authors to add to the collection. The Athenæum’s own librarian, Elinor Gregory, would annotate the list and send back the order. Their business correspondence reveals an institutional friendship whose scope extends beyond the realm of books.
This original theatrical presentation is based on decades of correspondence between the directors and librarians of the London Library and the Boston Athenæum. The surviving letters, which date from 1913 to 1945, tell a remarkable story of global cooperation and resilience in the face of great challenge.
In the Athenæum’s Annual Report for 1940, the Library Committee dedicates a full paragraph to the relationship between the Athenæum and the London Library, including multiple excerpts from Mr. Purnell’s letters that illustrate the difficulties experienced by the staff of the London Library during the war. On November 6, Mr. Purnell writes, “We have had 5 incendiary bombs on the roofs & one inside through a skylight, but we got them out without damage being done with buckets of sand.”
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