A salon at the Providence Athenaeum Frank Mullin

Athenaeums—membership libraries—might seem like fusty relics of the 19th century. But the Providence Athenaeum has become a lively center for intellectual engagement.

At the opening of the Providence Athenaeum's Benefit Street building in July 1838, Brown University President Francis Wayland gave a two-hour speech which, in the overwrought style of 19th-century oratory, described the new institution as "a fountain of living water, at which the intellectual thirst of this whole community may be slaked." Although the Athenaeum was a membership library—readers had to pay an annual fee for the privilege of borrowing books—it was, in an era before the proliferation of public libraries across America, designed to serve every stratum of Providence society.

Today, there are only about 18 membership libraries left in America, most of them located in those Northeast cities that are generally more inclined to hang onto relics. And perhaps more than any other institution, libraries in general are grappling with their place in a society that is increasingly dependent on and obsessed with technology. Many have coped with the shift away from printed books by becoming neighborhood computer labs, after-school centers, and even social-service clearinghouses.

The main reading room of the Athenaeum (freda/Flickr)

The Providence Athenaeum, on the other hand, has stubbornly resisted change—and that may be the key to its continued relevance for this city of just under 180,000.

The Athenaeum, a Greek Revival edifice that still gives its solid wooden card catalog pride of place, looks and feels like it belongs in another century. But it has lately become a vital part of 21st-century civic life, thanks to a lively Friday night salon series with discussion topics ranging from the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring to the Rhode Island quahog clam industry.

The series is curated by Christina Bevilacqua, the Athenaeum's director of programs and public engagement, and it has apparently tapped into a widespread yearning for intellectual engagement, packing upwards of 120 people each week into a ground-floor reading room about half the size of a tennis court.

Christina Bevilacqua (Frank Mullin)

"I think Christina is the best thing that ever happened to the Athenaeum, and to Providence," says John Chiafalo, who has been attending the salons since the beginning. "There's so much, culturally, that I wouldn't have gotten involved with on my own."

Though, as a 61-year-old retiree, Chiafalo at first appears to be exactly the sort of person who would typically spend his Friday nights discussing Proust, he argues that he is not one of the "East Side elite." Chiafalo lives in a working-class neighborhood on the other side of town, and he didn't get a college degree until he was 40. "But no one at the Athenaeum looks down on me," he says. "It's intellectual without being academic."

Bevilacqua brings to the Athenaeum her own diverse sensibilities—her resume includes stints as a social worker and hat designer. When she was hired in 2005, the Atheneaum was struggling. It had lost about a fifth of its 1,000 members after, in a desperate bid to raise money, the board voted to sell a prized original edition of John James Audubon's Birds of America.

Membership, which costs $200 a year for a household or $165 for an individual, has since rebounded, even as Bevilacqua opened all salons and book clubs to non-members.

"This is a long-term game," Bevilacqua says, explaining why, unlike other membership libraries, the Athenaeum has not kept its most popular programs behind a pay wall. "We have to make the case for support."

Despite its recent success, the Athenaeum is as cash-strapped as any nonprofit cultural institution, and it struggles to attract the younger people whom it might one day rely upon for support. Recent efforts to reach the under-50 crowd have been working, however—a book club for younger people called "The Contemporaries" was filled to capacity before regular salon-goer SueEllen Kroll, 38, had the chance to sign up.

"Hopefully, someday there will be a slot that opens," she says wistfully.

Kroll started going to the Athenaeum's salons several years ago because, as grants director with the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, she had helped to fund some of them—including a multipart series on Moby Dick that is now legendary among salon-goers. Over the years, Kroll's organization has arranged for many of the independent researchers it supports to present at salons, a civic forum that offers an alternative to the insularity of academia and can provide much-needed exposure for local scholars and artists.

"Christina has a bird's-eye view and the ability to connect with other institutions in the city, helping them to build audiences," Kroll says. Salon attendees are broad-minded and relish learning about the work of outside groups, "even though it might be a small Latino theater no one's ever heard of," she adds.

This past fall, the salon series went on hiatus, as Bevilacqua was appointed to a fellowship with the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University, to research the history of salons and think about the role and future of the Athenaeum's series. As part of her fellowship project, she and a research assistant are surveying several dozen frequent salon attendees about their experience, both at the salons and since the break began. Many have admitted to feeling bereft, and are looking forward to the series' return in February.

Bevilacqua says some have compared their Friday night attendance to a sort of secular church-going. "There's something about a regular place that gives people the opportunity to come and think about the community they live in, to think about ideas," she says. "We're reclaiming that public mission from the 1830s."

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