Overdue Library Travels: The Redwood Library & Athenaeum in Newport, RI

The Redwood Library & Athenaeum

What is an athenaeum? 1. An institution for the promotion of literary or scientific learning. 2. A library or reading room. 3. A sanctuary of Athena at Athens, built by the Roman emperor Hadrian, and frequented by poets and scholars (dictionary.com). You may have never heard of the word – it is pretty old and fancy-sounding. This concept of a place for scholars to gather, read, discuss, and learn is deeply rooted in history (hence Athena at Athens!), and played a large role in making libraries what they are today. The Redwood Athenaeum in Newport, Rhode Island epitomizes the amazing value that athenaeums have held in the US, before it was even a country of its own.

The Redwood Athenaeum was founded in 1747 by a man named Abraham Redwood. Abraham and 45 other colonists opened up the library with the intention of making written knowledge more widely available to residents of the Newport area. A small monthly subscription fee was charged to members in exchange for access to the materials in the collection (the original subscription box!!). The initial collection consisted of 751 titles in subjects such as Religion, Philosophy, Law, Architecture, Classics, Agriculture, and Medicine.

The neoclassical exterior of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport, RI.

I recently visited the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, and boy was I entranced by the history emanating throughout that place. The building was designed by Peter Harrison, the first professionally trained architect in the United States, and it was his first major architectural commission. The Redwood Athenaeum is the oldest subscription library operating in its original building. The building itself is so stately that just driving by it is intriguing – the Neoclassical exterior practically implores you to see the inside.

The library is still membership-based at $75 per year. In order to gain admission, you must either be a member or pay a $10 entrance fee. Once inside, you are presented with an array of reading rooms to explore, all with historical artwork decorating the walls and tables. The tall ceilings and towering windows make the space very light and airy. I envied the man sitting at a table casually reading the newspaper as if that’s his daily routine – how awesome that would be!

  • A reading room in the Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport, RI. Bookshelves line the walls and the tall ceilings open up into a large skylight in the center.

In one room, there are some books from the original collection still shelved behind cages. The oldest book I found was dated 1723 on the spine. It was interesting to see what subjects were pertinent and how books were titled during that era. A good number of the books were all different kinds of dictionaries, mostly named after the person who wrote it. For example, next to each other I found Miller’s Gardeners Dictionary and Gardeners Dictionary. Some other titles I noted were History of Plants, History of Naples, Builder’s Dictionary, Memoirs of Wool, History of Jews, and The Gentlemen’s Magazine.

The stark contrast between those traditional book subjects and some modern fiction titles was striking. To find 50 Shades of Gray shelved next to a display on the books of Jane Austen in the room directly adjacent to shelves of books from the 1700s was simply fascinating to me. What a testament to the fortress of knowledge, curiosity, and community that libraries have been throughout the history of this country.

  • Shelves of books from the original collection of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport, RI line the walls behind cages in a reading room. Most of the books are from the 1700s.

Additionally at the time of my visit, the Redwood Library and Athenaeum was hosting an exhibit called “The Claggetts of Newport: Master Clockmakers in Colonial America.” The exhibition showcased 3 eighteenth century clockmakers. “Made at a time when society was dominated by a small minority of elite merchants eager to project wealth and taste, clocks were among the most expensive household objects, luxury items within reach of only the wealthiest citizens. As such, they are signal products of an emergent American style in contrast to European fashions. As well, they offer a perspective on the history of style in Newport, and on its role in shaping American taste. Carefully preserved by Rhode Island families—some for nearly 300 years—the original owners of several examples are documented, while early family histories are known for others. Of the thirty-five clocks exhibited here, all but three are privately owned, and most have never been shown publicly.” This was quite the added bonus to see included in the admission fee!

If you love libraries and find yourself in Newport, Rhode Island, I definitely suggest checking out the Redwood Library & Athenaeum. It was certainly worth the $10 fee, and I probably spent a little over an hour studying every nook and cranny it had to offer. To find out more information, visit their website here.

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