Hello fellow book historians!

What follows is a summary of Monday’s trip to the Boston Athenaeum.   Since we were not able to take notes, and since my mortal memory is guilty of and liable to forgetfulness, PLEASE FEEL FREE TO LET ME KNOW IF I MISSED ANYTHING.

I wasn’t able to take any pictures since I’d checked in my phone before I went inside, but I have provided links from the Athenaeum website where appropriate. Please also feel free to provide your own pictures if you have any.

I look forward to reading your comments. It’s going to be especially interesting to hear from those of you who ended up in a different group from me. Maybe together we can piece together a more encompassing picture of The Athenaeum. Anyway, without further ado:

Monday, 02/27/17 Boston Athenaeum Visit

A few minutes after 3:00 P.M. we had all arrived at the athenaeum, checked in our belongings and signed the guestbook at the circulation desk.  We were ready for our tour. We split into two groups; Myself and 8 other students were guided through by Mr. Fleming who started us off with a brief history of the place and the building. (I’m sure the second group got an equivalent intro. Please share in the comments!) He explained to us how it was founded 1807 which makes it one of the oldest independent libraries in the country. Though the athenaeum was at first a place to collect books, it later went on to acquire some works of art, sculptures, and paintings. In fact, we were shown some of these collections down in the basement of the building.

In the basement we brushed by cases-full of collected books, in order to arrive at a very special statue at the end of the room right in front of the conservation room. That statue was of “Venus D’Medici” (a copy of the original Venus in the Medici collection in Italy) Here she is at the athenaeum:

[Complete Side note: In the spirit of the Shakespearean Sonnets that we read for this week: If you liked this sculpture of Venus AND you like Shakespeare, may I suggest Venus and Adonis ? (Read here: ) Shakespeare’s rewrite of Ovid’s Book X and (probably) the first thing Shakespeare ever published.]

We were also told that before this floor became “the basement of the athenaeum” and home to so many precious artifacts, it used to be a stadium — which explains the Greek columns that, oddly enough, don’t look so out of place in there. Where the stadium used to be, now there is a “conservation room”. Though we couldn’t go inside (time was ticking) we learned that this room is —to put it simply— the “restoration lab” where books get restored and repaired.

Next, we headed up for the 4th floor. On our way out, I thought for a millisecond that  I saw Dante Alighieri’s eyes (and very distinct nose) staring at me, but I didn’t have time to pause and look back. So, the first thing I did when I got home was check to see if I was right…and sure enough the athenaeum does have several busts and sculptures of Dante. Here’s the one I saw:

On the 4th floor we saw several collections of books, including some of Henry Knox’s books (Fun fact: before he went on to become the U.S.’s first secretary of war, Knox was a bookstore owner which is where some of these books came from!) and George Washington’s encyclopedia. On that same floor, in the Trustee’s Room, we saw one third of Washington’s library (which we were told almost ended up in England after his death, had it not been for the Bostonians who thought it absolutely unacceptable to ship these valuables back to the British and brought it to the athenaeum instead.) Portraits of George and Martha Washington by Gilbert Stuart were on display in the trustee’s room as well.

We then descended from the 4th floor in order to join the rest of the class in viewing some rare books that Stanley had picked out for us. First on the list was the Nuremberg Chronicles (1415) which included several hand-painted illuminations in surprisingly vibrant colors and great detail. Stanley explained that the typesetting would be crafted and painted prior to the making of the book to avoid messing up the pages etc. He also talked to us about the binding and restoration of this book, explaining also the use of gold on the Initial of the opening page. He mentioned that since most texts were no longer being printed on vellum, they were cheaper to produce and could therefore be construed as lesser in value. The addition of gold almost rectifies that and proves that the book is still worth its price.

The second rare book we saw was a sheet music book. Stanley explained the significance of this particular book because it was (one of) the first to use an engraved plate that allowed for the printing of  both the musical notes and the lines at once without having to go through the process of printing lines, waiting, and printing the notes afterwards.

The third and last book we saw was printed or “inspired by” medieval books in terms of its appearance, illumination etc even though it was printed after moveable type. We did not get to hear about it in great detail since it was nearing 4 o’clock (i.e. the end of our tour) but I’m definitely missing a detail or two so if someone else remembers more about that third book than I do, by all means let us know!

after a few minutes of  Stanley answering questions from some of us, our tour officially ended (thus concluding our magical albeit brief trip back in time? Am I allowed to say that? I think I am…) and we all left the athenaeum shortly after.


It’s been a pleasure documenting our very first trip. Happy commenting, everyone 🙂


11 thoughts on “BOSTON ATHENAEUM VISIT 02/27/17

  1. Halla,
    As you mention in your post, I also thought it was very interesting when Jerry told us that George Washington’s book collection almost ended up back in England! What an ironic disgrace that would have been. I think the wooden table in that room, as Jerry was telling us was made out of one whole piece of teak, is a nice touch – it seems like there is some sort of effort to preserve everything in the museum, not just the art and the books.
    Also I remember seeing the library of Queen Mary of England (early 1500’s) but I can’t quite remember which floor it was on, I think we ended up there right before going into see Stanley though. That was one of my most favorite things we saw on the tour.

    PS: And we can’t forget the cute dog in the conservation room! He probably has a very important job of keeping watch over all of the books…or his owner couldn’t get doggy daycare that day, either one.

  2. Thanks for this scribal entry, Halla, relying on your memory (quite medieval!) to provide a synopsis of the day. I was in the other group, so I’m sad to hear that we missed the cute dog and the conservation lab, but we did get to see the “quiet” 5th floor, which is reserved for researchers. One highlight was visiting the coffee room, which leads out onto a patio outside that overlooks Boston Common. It not only looked like an ideal place to work, but we even met one random researcher, who turned out to be a James Dobreff, Professor of Classics at UMB! Here’s his scholarly profile: As I hope this visit reflected, there are lots of exciting opportunities for work with rare books at the Athenaeum and I hope you all can take advantage of this rich resource for our class!

  3. I really enjoyed our class’ visit to the Athenaeum! I had been before, but not since High School so it felt great to be back. I also had never been in the Rare Book room before, so finally getting to not only go inside, but see the three amazing books that Stanley showed us was wonderful. It was pretty wild that everyone had to be locked in the room, but considering the incredible books in there it definitely made sense. The discussion about printing music was really interesting to me because it was something that I had never considered before. When Stanley told us about how complicated printing sheet music once was, it made sense, but it had simply never occurred to me before. The innovation of putting the notes and the lines on little individual blocks and fitting them together sounds like a very creative solution to an interesting problem. Looking at the Nuremberg Chronicles was also really neat. I can’t imagine how long it must have taken to color in all of those woodcuts! No wonder it cost double as much as a black and white copy.

  4. I really enjoyed the trip. It was my first “grandeur” library visit, and I loved every minute of it. To see dozens of books laid out like that is awe inspiring. I too, thought I saw Dante, my favorite poet I think. He looked just like he is illustrated in my copy of the Divine Comedy. And as for memory, yes, human memory is fallible, but when something truly amazing touches the mind, it leaves an imprint which is unlikely to leave. I was in your group, I don’t recall you missing anything.

  5. I enjoyed your comments about the art that was displayed throughout the Athenaeum because although our group saw and passed by all the sculptors and paintings, our tour guide mentioned that, per request, she would specifically draw our attention to the books. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the beautiful sculptors (such as the Dante Alighieri sculptor you shared a link to) and the beautiful paintings that surrounded these old/rare books! I’m clueless to famous paintings and famous sculptors and everything art so I’ll refrain from pretending like I know what I’m talking about but it definitely inspired me to make an appointment for another tour so that I can now learn about the artwork that surrounds these amazing books!

    • I agree completely! There were a number of paintings in the space which I was interested in looking over if I had had more time to examine them before being whisked away to see something else of interest in the library. It also piqued my curiosity that there where some paintings by more contemporary artists that were on display. I even snuck away from my tour group for a few seconds to be able to examine one that was on display. I hope that I’m able to return; it’d be interesting to be able t take a tour of the space that focused entirely on the artistic works that they have on display there.

  6. Halla, thank you for the entry. During Stanley’s presentation, I was struck by the variety of binding materials on display. The discussion of the various skins used for binding (goat, calf, pig, etc.) really drove home the idea (along with Vellum) of the book as a more “living” object. I was satisfied with the explanation as to why one might choose one material over the other, i.e. pig skin, while more durable, is difficult to work with; whereas, goat, and more so calf, is less durable, but more pliable, hence easier to work with. However, as I mentioned to Emma after class, I am less than satisfied with the backstory of the name “morocco” binding. The older conservation methods, in which marginalia might be cut off during rebinding also spoke to this notion somehow. Perhaps it the thought that the book was assembled from elements of things which have changed states (living to dead), and then itself meets a sort of violence (which I think horrified everyone in the class) and was changed by it? Similarly, the additions to the building itself (the extra floors, and fireproof catwalks), as well as, the collection of rare books, suggest a living entity in the Athenaeum itself. Thank you again, Halla, and everyone else, for your responses. I had so much fun that day.

  7. I am very curious about the stadium which is now the conservation room. I don’t remember Annie using the word “stadium,” but it’s interesting to think about because when I use that word today, I’m usually talking about soccer. In fact, I was just standing in below freezing weather this weekend in a stadium watching soccer. I did some etymology searching and found that the Latin “stadium” meant a course for foot races and the Greek “fixed standard of length.” This makes sense for sports, but what kind of stadium did they mean in the Athenaeum? The conservation of books is a long process and I imagine there are fixed ways of doing it.

    I couldn’t find on the Athenaeum the original purpose of the basement and why they built some high columns, but I doubt it was for soccer.

  8. During the trip, I mentioned to some people that it was a humbling experience to be in the same room as the private collections of our first President and Secretary of War. Had these books never existed or come into their possession, our country may not be the same.

    Like Emma, I’m also curious as to what the intention behind the supposed “stadium” would have been. An attempt at making the entire building closer to the Greeks?

  9. I can definitely say I have never been in a library quite like that before in my life. All the small stories behind some of the books and areas we visited really enhanced the historical importance of this building. I honestly thought it was a library like any other before the tour; I understood they had rare books collection and that was a new experience, but beyond that I thought it was just a plain old library. As soon as the tour guide started explaining the various histories and the purpose the founders of the building assigned to it, really opened my eyes.

  10. Living in Boston my entire life I’ve always know about the Athenaeum but I’ve never gotten around to visiting it until now. The building felt like a mix between a library and a museum, and each room had such historical pieces of art and literature that just made the atmosphere feel that much more important. If I had to pick one part of the tour that interested me the most, it’d probably be the Special Viewing room, partly because the books that Jerry showed us just looked so interesting with their size and age while also being preserved so well.

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