Do you like the smell of books? Heck yes, you do.  Read on!

When I told people I was going to visit the Boston Athenaeum the most common response was “Athe-whaaat?” To be honest, before I started doing some research about cheap stuff for this blog, I had never heard of the Athenaeum (and I worked down the street for nearly two years.  I’m really observant.)

So, what is it? The Boston Athenaeum is a membership library that dates back to 1807.  It’s now in its 5th home at 10.5 Beacon Street (take the Red Line to Park, walk up towards the State House, take a right and it will be on your right.)

As stated on their website, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “athenaeum” as

  • a. An association of persons interested in scientific and literary pursuits, meeting for the purpose of mutual improvement; a literary or scientific club;
  • b. A building or institution in which books, periodicals, and newspapers are provided for use; a literary club-room, reading-room, library.

“Just as a museum is a place for the muses who inspire art, so an athenæum is a place for Athena, the goddess of wisdom who inspires intellectual pursuits.” (Source)

The library holds over 500,000 volumes, focusing on Boston and New England history, biography, British and American literature, and fine arts.  The rare book collections include the library of George Washington.  It also houses a large collection of art including paintings, sculptures, and prints.

The first floor of the Athenaeum is always open to the public, but to see the best bits, I’d recommend the free Art and Architecture tour that takes place every Tuesday and Thursday at 3:00 PM (call 617-227-0270 ext 279 to make a reservation.)

The tour leads you to each of the five floors of the library, plus a look into the art department in the basement.  You start off on the stunning fifth floor, which includes a balcony with a beautiful view of the city.  You can see a picture of the fifth floor library at the bottom of the page here. (Photography isn’t allowed on the tour, unfortunately.)  The high ceilings, white walls, large windows, and “no noise” rule makes this a sort of ethereal place.  The membership price may be worth it just to be able to hang out here.

The rest of the tour goes through each of the floors, highlighting the art and rare books that are housed on each.  The tour was advertised as an hour long, but the knowledgeable docent stretched it to an hour and a half.  None of us minded.  You leave the Athenaeum relaxed and hoping maybe you sucked up some of that knowledge.  The whole building smells like old books and learnin’.

Click here for more information about visiting.