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Required Reading: Reimagining a Colonial Library


Required Reading: Reimagining a Colonial Library

A major exhibition, Required Reading: Reimagining a Colonial Library, showcased and interpreted the King’s Chapel Library Collection, one of the surviving treasures of 17th century Boston. Visitors explored the city's colonial history, the fine crafts of bookbinding and furniture-making, and the meaning of “essential knowledge.”

The exhibition was open to the public from September 17, 2019 to March 14, 2020 in the Norma Jean Calderwood Gallery on the library’s first floor.

Required Reading told the story of some colonial Bostonians’ intellectual and spiritual quests, and invited visitors to reflect on their own “must-read” lists, along with those of ten community partners:


View the full list of our community partners' and our visitors' "required reading" online.


The King’s Chapel Library

In 1698, a set of 221 books crossed the Atlantic on HMS Deptford, a fifty-gun man-of-war, to serve as a compact library of necessary works for King’s Chapel, the first Anglican church in Boston. They had been chosen by Reverend Thomas Bray of London, an appointed commissary, or spiritual guide, to Anglican outposts in the American colonies. Cached safely when the minister, loyal to the British Crown, fled Boston in March 1776, the books re-emerged after the American Revolution, and were deposited at the ​Athenæum in 1823.

Rare and notable items in the King’s Chapel Library Collection:

  • An atlas of the world (1693)
  • Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World (1666)
  • A mathematics textbook covering everything from practical geometry to logarithms (1690)
  • A nine-language Bible, the “London Polyglot” (1657)
  • A Biblical concordance compiled by Massachusetts minister Samuel Newman (1658)

View the full list of books in the King's Chapel Library online.


The Gallery Installation

Required Reading featured a full-scale replica of the massive, ark-like bookcase designed in 1883 to house the historic collection. The replica, built in 2019 by exhibition designer Brent Budsberg of Current Projects and supported in part by the Chipstone Foundation, is an achievement in contemporary woodworking. Modified in a surprising way, it enabled visitors to browse dozens of “must-read” works offered by the ten partners.


Community Partners

Dr. Thomas Bray believed his library would provide essential knowledge, yet he necessarily made book selections from a limited and biased viewpoint. Today, libraries including the Boston Athenæum collect broadly, endeavoring to reflect diverse perspectives. To demonstrate the variety and richness of “essential knowledge” and the ways it can be defined, the replica cabinet was filled with titles from the community partners’ own “must-read” lists. Some authors, including James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, were chosen by multiple partners, but overlap was minimal and each list was unique.

As visitors examined compelling and important selections from the colonial library and the community partners’ lists, they were inspired to imagine their own definitions of “required reading.”

“The story of the books’ arrival in New England as ‘necessary and useful’ texts for teaching and learning, their importance to religious leaders in Boston, and their impressive state of preservation—through the tumult of a city rocked by revolution—are dramatic and little-known. More than three centuries later, their appeal is not simply as a time capsule or as examples of the craft of bookbinding, but also as a profound prompt, giving us the opportunity to imagine the readings we’d select as essential in our own lives.”

—John Buchtel, Curator of Rare Books and Head of Special Collections