The Providence Library Company was founded in 1753 by a group of Providentians who wanted to read but could not afford to have books shipped from Europe on their own. Before the city had a public lending library, this organization gave members access to the world through shared books for a small fee. The company eventually set up shop in the Athenaeum (named for Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom) in 1836. It’s been an institution ever since.
Don’t be daunted by the neoclassical columns and name. The Athenaeum, or “the Ath” as some of its regulars know it, is for everyone. On any given day, anyone can drop in and browse the stacks, which include gems like the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass (containing notes in Walt Whitman’s own handwriting), an 1830s book on astronomy, and a Regency-era book of boys’ entertainments.
Artwork dons the walls of the building. A full length portrait of George Washington looks over the reading room, while another wall is graced with a bookplate from The Raven painted by Édouard Manet. The library has its fair share of literary history, even aside from its tomes. Poet Sarah Helen Whitman broke off her courtship with Edgar Allan Poe in the Athenaeum, and H. P. Lovecraft visited many a time and even wrote to friends about the charming little library in Providence.
The Athenaeum still functions as a library but it’s also much more than that. There are musical events, parties, old-fashioned salons and speaking events, all hosted in the beautiful Victorian library stacks. The busts of Cicero and Athena even wear costumes. It serves as an important cultural space in Providence, and its public programs have earned the institution a reputation as “a 19th-century library with the soul of a 21st-century rave party.”
Know Before You Go
There's a sizable children's library as well, and pets are welcome too. The library is regularly closed on Sundays.