East Greenwich and The Providence Athenæum

If you’re like me, you prefer the Cheeto Puffs over the crunchies. And if you’re also like me, you adore a good library. We have a lot in common, huh? If you adore a good library, then you’re gonna want to run up to Providence, Rhode Island and spend an afternoon at The Providence Athenæum. It will fill your heart with gladness, take away all your sadness, ease your troubles, that’s what’ll do. It will, in fact, Rod Stewart your ass.

The Providence Athenæum is mere steps from the entrance to Brown University, with such notable alumni as, John D. Rockefeller Jr., a slew of Kennedys, Jeffrey Eugenides (please read Middlesex), Ted Turner, Horace Mann, and most importantly in our house, the reason the picture below was taken, Emma Watson AND John Krasinski.

But The Providence Athenæum is its own kind of wonderful. Our Rhode Island friends wanted to visit since they moved there over the summer, but they were waiting on the right people to visit with. Insert the Goodnights. (Heart swooning noises). The day we visited was a hectic day. Our first day in Rhode Island, and we had a lot to see. We’d had breakfast in their wonderful village of East Greenwich, in a diner inside of an old train car. The diner was called Jiggers and I had the delicious Rhode Island Johnny Cakes!

Then we walked around East Greenwich for a bit. We got to see the old Debters Prison and too many yachts and sailboats to count. We learned that there are two parts of East Greenwich. One side called The Hill and one side called The Harbor and where you live is how you know where you belong. It seemed to me that you either have a million dollar house on The Hill or an $800,000 on The Harbor, but I’m sure there’s more to it than that. And don’t worry, our friends live on The Harbor, which means they are riff-raff and not to be trusted. I think.

Essentially what I learned is that Rhode Island is a different beast. A nicer, more beautiful beast than anywhere else I’ve ever been. All that history. All the salt in the air. All the hills, all the harbors. I was more than impressed. Then they took us to The Providence Athenæum.

Listen, I’ve been in some cool libraries. I’ve been to the Boston Public Library. I’ve been in the reading room of the NYC Library (pic below) not to mention all the other cool, lesser known ones around the country (I like to stop at libraries, okay, geez leave me alone.) But The Providence Athenæum is now my favorite.

It’s not the size, although it is a perfect size. Small enough to fit in a quarter of a square block, but big enough (three floors), and with enough of an impressive collection to spend a whole day. It’s the accessibility, the welcoming nature of the place. Oh, and dogs are allowed, so there’s that. Before I get into the history of the place, here’s some a lot of pics for your viewing pleasure.

Okay, so why is The Providence Athenæum so freaking awesome? Great question! The history of the library goes like this. In 1753, Providence had a library called the Providence Library Company. They also had a second library, not connected to the Providence Library Company, called Providence Athenæum. They didn’t like each other, go figure (they were both managed by men, so…) In 1836 they agreed to dissolve both libraries and merge together as one, which is now known as The Providence Athenæum. They ended up merging their collections, which was a great idea, and by 1850 they were the library in Providence.

In 1872 the library hired its first female employee, an assistant librarian named Mary Angell, and she started work on the card catalog that still sits on the main floor! After Mary left the library, Grace Leonard, the library’s first female head librarian (who worked there for 46 years) reclassified the whole catalog in accordance with the Dewey decimal system. With over 56,000 volumes, it took her 13 years. More can be found about the history and these women at The Ath’s website.

The Ath, its colloquial name, has hosted many prominent writers, artists, and thinkers in American history, including Edgar Allen Poe and his lost love, Sarah Helen Whitman, an amazing poet in her own right. In fact, Whitman broke up with Poe at The Ath and it’s said that Poe haunts the top floor. I was on the lookout, but didn’t see him. Maybe next time! Others who have lingered the stacks include, H.P Lovecraft, Thomas Hopkins Webb, and Francis Whipple, among other “scribbling women” according to Nathaniel Hawthorne. I found a wonderful article by Jane Lancaster on the colorful history of The Ath if you are as interested as I am.

So there you have it, some of it anyway. The history, the mystic, the lovely architecture, and the amazing collection of The Ath, which is just a hop, skip, and jump from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, so if you ever find yourself on Federal Hill, maybe yonder over and check it out. You won’t be disappointed!

M.

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