Inside the Providence Athenaeum

The historic library on Benefit Street is a bibliophile's dream.

Collecting books for the Providence Athenaeum was a labor of love for founders like John Russell Bartlett (pictured below). It was the 1830s and ’40s, Providence had just incorporated and an influx of young people came to work. The Athenaeum saw its role to provide books to educate them. Bartlett, who later served as Rhode Island’s secretary of state, organized the purchase of a twenty-five volume collection of books called Description of Egypt, and designed an Egyptian cabinet to hold them. The Athenaeum drew writers like Sarah Helen Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe, who hung out (and broke up) there. The only public library in Providence at the time, the stacks were filled with conversation. In fact, some visitors “were getting in trouble for being too rowdy and reading too many novels,” says Kate Wodehouse, director of collections and library services. “The board wanted them to be reading more highfalutin histories and classics.” Today, students still fill the Athenaeum’s desks and it remains open to the public with a weekly salon series, music nights and children’s events. This month, the Athenaeum is scheduled to reveal its latest chapter: a new website at