Boston Athenæum is one of the oldest independent libraries in the United States. It is also one of only sixteen extant membership libraries, meaning that patrons pay a yearly subscription fee to use the Athenæum's services. The institution was founded in 1807 by the Anthology Club of Boston, Massachusetts.
In 1803, a young Harvard graduate by the name of Phineas Adams established the magazine The Monthly Anthology, or Magazine of Polite Literature. Adams left the New England area in 1804, having insufficient funds to continue the periodical; however, the printers Munroe and Francis convinced other young men to contribute to and continue the magazine under the new title of The Monthly Anthology and Boston Review. By 1805, these young men founded the Anthology Society.
William Smith Shaw, librarian (ca.1807-1823)
The Boston Athenæum was founded in 1807 by members of the Anthology Society, literary individuals who began with a plan to have a reading room. The first librarian, William Smith Shaw, and the new trustees had ambitious plans for the Athenæum. Basing their vision on the Athenæum and Lyceum in Liverpool, England,their vision was expanded to include a library encompassing books in all subjects in English and foreign languages, a gallery of sculptures and paintings, collections of coins and natural curiosities, and even a laboratory. This ambitious design has evolved over the past two hundred years with some changes in focus (i.e. there is no chemistry lab) but remaining true to the ideal expressed in the institution's seal, chosen in 1814: Literarum fructus dulces, sweet are the fruits of letters.
The first yearly subscriptions were sold for ten dollars; only members were allowed to enter the Athenæum's rooms, although they could bring guests. The Athenæum’s collections were initially non-circulating, meaning that even members could not check books out to take home.
At first, the Boston Athenæum rented rooms, then in 1809 bought a small house adjacent to the King's Chapel Burying Ground, and in 1822 moved into a mansion on Pearl Street, where a lecture hall and gallery space were added within four years.
In 1823, Shaw stepped down as librarian, and the King's Chapel Library, as well as the Theological Library belonging to the Boston Association of Ministers, was deposited in the Athenæum. Work was begun on a shelf catalog in 1827. This same year, the art gallery was established, and the first annual exhibition opened. Measures were undertaken in 1830 to turn the collections into a circulating library. Once the Athenæum became a circulating library, only four books were allowed to be checked out at a time.
By the early 1840s, Boston was a fast-growing city. As a consequence, Pearl Street was built up commercially, with warehouses crowding around the Athenæum building. The trustees moved to construct a new building in order to facilitate access to the Athenæum. Land was acquired on Beacon Street overlooking the Old Granary Burying Ground, and the cornerstone was laid in 1847.
In 1849, the current location at 10½ Beacon Street opened. It was the first space designed for the Boston Athenæum’s specific needs. The first floor held the sculpture gallery; the second, the library; and the third, the paintings gallery.
The architect was Edward Clarke Cabot, an artist and dilettante whose design was selected because his ingenious arch over graves in the Granary Burial Ground allowed more space on all floors above the basement level. The neo-Palladian façade of “Patterson sandstone” was unique in Boston at the time, and remains so today.
Charles Ammi Cutter became librarian in 1869, succeeding William Frederick Poole. Until this point, work on the comprehensive catalog of the library’s holdings had been uninspired. The Athenæum’s exhibition area opened up when the Museum of Fine Arts moved the collections into their own space overlooking Copley Square. Cutter took advantage of the space; he used it to spread out the collections and to revise and complete the five-volume catalog. Cutter created his own classification system, known as Expansive Classification, in order to revise and finish the five-volume catalog. Later, the Cutter system became the basis for the Library of Congress classification system; the sections of call number used to alphabetically designate authors’ names in the LC system are still known as "Cutter numbers."
The building is reportedly haunted.