From Boston to Peru: Reading Books at the Boston Athenaeum and the Peru Free Library

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How are we to bring order into this multitudinous chaos and so get the deepest and widest pleasure from what we read? 

V. Woolf, “How to Read a Book”

Photo Credit: Megan Manton/Boston Athenaeum

“To enter the building is to feel an overwhelming impulse to read.”  So wrote Sarah Schweitzer about the Boston Athenaeum in a 2009 Boston.Com article.  Indeed, pushing back the building’s red, leather-bound doors, one plunges into the world of reading like a sea-creature slipping into the ocean’s depths.

How is it that a building can transform us from scatter-brained urban land creatures subject to Boston’s many disparate calls into more focused beings equipped to swim through the world of learning?  It may be that the library’s high ceilings and twelve floors expand our sense of possibility, inviting the mind to unbend.  Certainly, the Athenaeum’s quiet aura of uninterrupted work offers a refuge from the jostling noise of the city’s streets.  Fellow readers lost in concentration call us to our task.  Art, sculpture, newspapers, journals, 750,000 books, maps–all await, encouraging inquiry.  The interior’s opulence telegraphs the value of spending time with books, transporting us to a lost age when leisure allowed one to linger over fictions and treatises, sermons and histories, maps and art, with nothing more pressing awaiting than afternoon tea.

But the Athenaeum’s true luxury is something even more precious and more rare than comfort and splendor alone: it offers the order necessary for sustained reading.

We see this order in the carefully designed reading spaces enticing one to that concentrated state of mind so beneficial for reading.  Solid walnut tables provide space for research materials.  Desks tucked between bookshelves beckon. Upholstered chairs placed next to side tables allow readers to sit next to stacks of books and begin the task of browsing.  The reference room displays recent journals side-by-side on long tables (shown below) carefully ordering the chaotic possibilities before us.

Photo Credit: Megan Manton/Boston Athenaeum

In short, the library has been designed for readers by readers to encourage us to leave the tyranny of the present by plunging into the otherworldly and timeless worlds contained in books.  Seated at the Athenaeum, we can take down volumes and, in Woolf’s words, “make them light up the many windows of the past; we can watch the famous dead in their familiar habits and fancy sometimes that we are very close and can surprise their secrets, and sometimes we may pull out a play or a poem that they have written and see whether it reads differently in the presence of the author.”

Photo credit: Megan Manton/Boston Athenaeum

The Boston Athenaeum is a subscription library.  To borrow books and use the upper floors requires a membership fee beyond the reach of many.  But the first floor is open to the public six days a week, and the Athenaeum’s programs, including concerts, are open to the public free of charge.  Its value as a public space is at least threefold: it is a research and membership library; an art museum and public gallery; and a public forum for lectures, readings, concerts, and other events.

Perhaps most of all, the Boston Athenaeum is a valuable icon reminding us of the civic value placed by a community on reading.

Less palatial, but no less essential, are the public spaces created by our public libraries.  Situated by the apple orchards of upstate New York is the Peru Free Public Library (shown below), a lovely 1927 structure that blends the old and the new.  It maintains its early twentieth-century elegance, even as it runs on solar energy.

Photo credit: Theresa Sanderson

Smaller in scale than the Boston Athenaeum (it holds about 14,000 items), it, too, beckons readers with its carefully arranged reading spaces.  A fireside (below) often warms  readers working at the reference room’s long tables during the shortening fall days and throughout the winter.

Photo credit: Theresa Sanderson

Carefully arranged reading spaces offer an opportunity to clear one’s head:

Photo credit: Theresa Sanderson

A children’s reading room is designed to invite young minds to the world of books:

Photo credit: Theresa Sanderson

The Peru Free Library’s many activities bind the community through art shows, pottery shows, book sales, children’s activities, public lectures, and other events.  Like the Boston Athenaeum, the Peru Free Library is carefully and creatively managed.

Public reading spaces like the Boston Athenaeum and the Peru Free Library contribute immeasurably to their communities and to their readers, allowing them to expand their sense of who they are.   By orchestrating spaces designed to slow us down long enough to stop skimming and sink into deep reading, they encourage a more studied approach to thought than is possible away from books.  If we feel as Woolf did, that heaven is “one continuous unexhausted reading,” the Boston Athenaeum and the public libraries that share its commitment to encouraging reading make it a little easier to experience heaven on earth.

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13 Responses to “From Boston to Peru: Reading Books at the Boston Athenaeum and the Peru Free Library”

  1. mikes75 Says:

    I had the pleasure of interning at the Athaneum in grad school, it’s a remarkable place!

  2. Anna Battigelli Says:

    I would love to hear more about what that was like! It seems like a heavenly place to work.

  3. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Thank you, Anna, for this rich and wonderfully illustrated tribute to reading and the role of libraries in fostering and sustaining this practice. While the Peru Library’s exterior and its various rooms are suggestive of an intimate communal space (almost domestic), the grandeur of the Athenaeum serve as a visual paean to the glories that reading can yield. The Library of Congress’s Jefferson building offers both spatial experiences as these photos of the Main Reading Room and Children’s Literature Reading Room illustrate:

    Children’s Reading Room, Jefferson Building, Library of Congress

    Yet, your post also raises questions not only about the relationship of architecture and reading and the spatial nature of each, but also about what the spaces designed for reading reveal about the cultural attitudes and assumptions surrounding this practice. The move in many university libraries to house books off-site to create more room for computer terminals, shared collaborative spaces, and coffee bars speaks to aspects of current transformations. Not surprisingly, renovations of some research archives and libraries have retained an emphasis on reading as a central function of the space; the Royal Society of the Arts offers a ready example and a case in which the organization has otherwise reinvented itself including assuming a leading role in fostering research and civic engagement. Although no plans exist to renovate the special collections reading room at West Chester, the space has not lost its aura of other-worldliness that Anna associates with the Athenaeum and Peru libraries, and it still functions as a site for public lectures and intellectual socializing.

    James Raven, among others, has written on libraries and the spaces of reading. See his article “From Promotion to Proscription: Arrangements for Reading and Eighteenth-Century Libraries” in The Practice and Representation of Reading in England. Ed. James Raven, Helen Small, Naomi Tadmor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 175-201.

  4. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Thanks for this, Eleanor. The photographs are helpful and your point about a library’s architecture deserves fuller exploration.

    Virginia Woolf describes the British Museum (when it held the British Library) in the following way:

    The swing-doors swung open; and there one stood under the vast dome, as if one were a thought in the huge bald forehead which is so splendidly encircled by a band of famous names.

    That change of perspective from thinking being to a thought in a brain nicely captures the submersion and focus cultivated by libraries.

    An image of the old reading room’s ceiling (slightly stretched by a panoramic photograph) is available at http://blog.londonconnection.com/2010/03/02/the-old-reading-room-the-british-museum/

  5. Anna Battigelli Says:

    This comment arrived from James Reid-Cunningham, Associate Director for Digital Programs & Preservation at the Boston Athenaeum:

    In the digital age, libraries have become portals rather than simply repositories. A library is now both a place to store physical objects made from paper, and a place where information, knowledge, and literature are sought online. The librarian is both a custodian of historical books, and a conduit for information gathering. The physical place of the library has changed only in the sense that there are so many more computers. With its majestic interiors the Athenaeum remains a place of contemplation, a place to pause and consider the contemporary life and civilization as reflected in the historical record.

    Thanks for this. The portal metaphor is interesting because it was operative even before the digital age gave it new resonance. It would be interesting to hear more about how a library as majestic as the Athenaeum structures reading experience (including digital reading) while preserving its commitment to being the place of contemplation you beautifully describe. This can’t be a simple task. Again, thanks!

  6. Rebecca Stuhr Says:

    The comments about the Peru Free Library of New York remind me of the East Falls branch of the Philadelphia Free Library.

  7. Anna Battigelli Says:

    The Peru Free Library is a gem. It is a beautiful public space, tastefully preserved, and expertly directed by Becky Pace. An artist and student of literature with a degree from Oxford, she knows about books and has the visual imagination to create reader-friendly spaces while curating a collection.

    She is also innovative. She applied for and won a grant to get solar-powered energy. Art shows bring visitors to the library. It’s an important community site.

    The Library also seems fortunate in its Board. It’s an instance of getting the right people supporting the best things.

    I’d love to hear more about the East Falls branch of the Philadelphia Free Library.

  8. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    I know the East Falls branch and readily agree with Rebecca on the similarities with the Peru library…. I also have very fond memories of the old BL Reading Room as well as the North Library.

    Both library architecture and room design reveal much about cultural attitudes toward reading. The many urban public libraries being renovated and re-conceptualized today are worth mining for what their new faces reveal about the place of reading and the role of the library.

  9. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Yes! And as James Reid-Cunningham notes, libraries are now “custodians of historical books and conduits of information gathering.” Much as I love digital data, it is strenuous to read. Additionally, computer terminals can be instruments of distraction. I’d be interested to hear more about how libraries like the Athenaeum or the Peru Free Library design interiors for readers of digitized texts.

  10. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    I suspect that for the Athenaeum the redesign is more a matter of adapting desks to allow for electrical cords and additional plugs and surge protectors. Perhaps James Reid-Cunningham could say more.

    I rarely read digital material when working in a place such as the Athenaeum. If I use electronic devices, I do so for note-taking or taking digital images.

    Several DC public libraries have undergone or are undergoing renovations. The Georgetown DC Public Library had been severely damaged by a fire about five years ago, but it fortunately was restored and expanded. When older blueprints detailing a reading terrace that had once existed was discovered, the terrace became part of the renovations. The Georgetown public library is featured in Library Design Showcase 2012: Reuse and Restoration.

  11. James Reid-Cunningham Says:

    I sometimes think that we exaggerate the difference between reading a paper book and a digital document. It remains uncomfortable reading a long document on a terminal, but newer e-readers really do parallel the experience of holding and paging through a paper book. A few changes of furniture and wiring to accommodate more terminals do not really change a space like the Athenaeum. A library is a place for contemplation, and that endures, whether or not the original stimulus for your thoughts was delivered through paper or pixels.

  12. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    I tend to agree with James’s sense of newer e-readers (though the tactile experience is of course different and the page-turning can be slow). PDFs, however, can be quite difficult to read on screen and, as we have discussed before, are intended to be printed. The latest versions of Adobe reader make this quite clear in the way the document appears on the screen using the basic settings.

  13. Anna Battigelli Says:

    While we are talking about the ordering experience offered by libraries like the Athenaeum, is it possible that e-readers do not offer and can’t yet offer the same at-a-glance ordering experience that a library offers?

    We can have lots of books loaded onto our Kindles or iPads and even mark up PDFs using iAnnotate, but are the representations of books on shelves in iBooks or the folders in iAnnotate or the front page icons in Kindle exactly the same thing as a stack of books set down next to a chair? If not, how do they differ?

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