First impressions of the Boston Athenæum

I spent about six hours in their library stacks this week. Here are some observations about their collection:

  • I found their most obscure shelves to be the most interesting, those in the lower half of the drum (poetry, philosophy, Eastern and Western religion), religious and didactic books on the basement level, and the art monographs in Lower Pilgrim. The physical beauty of the books that you can take out is incredible–down the street at Brattle Book Shop, you could expect to pay upwards of $75 each to purchase such books, and this library has tens of thousands like them that you can choose from to take home for two months at a time. They represent the very best in beautiful, handmade books. In terms of old books, you can take out thousands from the early 18th century and up. In terms of size, you can take out hundreds of monumental folios that are over 12″ x 16″ x 2″.

  • The number of original marble sculptures that line the rooms is awe-inspiring. They are wonderful companions among the books.

  • One of the most valuable benefits of subscribing is full access to electronic resources from home, especially Early English Books Online. That database alone is worth the annual fee.

  • As with any other significant library built up over hundreds of years, what this collection has to offer you is only limited by your depth of curiosity and aesthetic sense. To become familiar with this institution’s collections is a liberal education in itself, because it holds extremely high standards for everything that it does.

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