Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Athenaeum Flood

The Boston Athenaeum flooded yesterday.  According to the general email and the Athenaeum website, it started with a plumbing problem on the first floor--the "public" section where much of the art (and the Children's Library) is kept.  Then the water seeped down into the basement stacks.  They library be closed for a while as they assess the damage.  Possibly thousands of books will be affected in some way.  Water is the bane of libraries--even dampness--so the books will need to be taken offsite and (hopefully) dried out enough to return to circulation.  The library, itself, will need to dry out, too.

The Atheneaum is a private library with a large reputation and an impressive collection of books--mostly in the arts and humanities--that cannot be easily gotten elsewhere.  I have always admired it.   It serves as a lighthouse for those pursuing disciplines that often fall out of vogue.  These days the arts and humanities suffer in the public eye for the frequent absence of immediate financial return.  This fact alone makes it important to have institutions of scholarship, education, and  preservation that are like this.  They help to show that contemplation is not dead and that broad, dynamic thought is still essential to the American life.

I joined this year as part of my staybattical.  Partly, it was because I thought it would be good for Norm, and it has been.  Mostly, however, it was because I wanted access to the sort of works that I would need for my research into transcendentalist Christianity, preaching, and the creative act.  They have some great material, some of which I have referenced in my previous posts. 

My athenaeum year has been a wonderful experience.  I have found the collections to be fulfilling, the silence to be gratifying, and the architecture inspiring.  In fact, I think I will keep a membership next year.  One of the more pleasant side effects of my Fridays with Norm is that, while he does his own work, I sit in one of those first floor chairs (or sometimes on the second floor) and outline my sermon.  There will be plenty of sermons to outline in the future.

There are, of course, other attractions.  If I just wanted to write, after all, there are plenty of desks closer to the parsonage.  In addition to the books, there is art.  One of my favorite seats, in fact, is the one right below John Singer Sargent's portrait of George McCulloch.  There is also the beauty of the space, and there is the location to consider.  Occasionally I gaze out the window at the view of the Granary Burial Ground.  The cemetery, itself, is quite the spectacle  It is busy in the summer and fall with tour guides in period costume giving the talk about Paul Revere's two gravestones. It is a  a grey, cold, quiet in winter. All of this helps elevate the soul and brings it closer to Creation.

Reading an old book from the Athenaeum--the kind they keep in the basement stacks--puts one in touch with history, too.  The book on my desk as I write this still has its original circulation card.  There are a number of illegible signatures along with a number of legible dates: June 4, 1886, October 11, 1886, September 13, 1888, October 8, 1894, December 2, 1897.  The list stops then.  I wonder who has read this book before me?  Who were they?  What were they like?  The book's topic would indicate they were most likely liberal clergy.  I hope its fellow-books have survived the deluge.

The library is private, but you can join.  If you are under 40, an individual membership costs $115 and a family membership is $175.  If you are over 40, then it is $230 and $290.  It is is worth it, believe me.  It may also be worth making a donation, if you can.  After all, there will be quite a lot of cleaning up to do and, honestly, many people benefit from the library's existence even if they don't belong themselves.  Just think of all the papers that have been researched and written there.  Imagine all the sermons.

Of course, once you join, it is hard to leave.  Fellow-member Nathaniel Hawthorne claimed to have shared the reading room for some time with the ghost of Unitarian minister Thaddeus Mason Harris a "small, withered, infirm, but brisk old gentleman, with snow-white hair, a somewhat stooping figure but yet remarkable alacrity of movement."  Rev. Dr. Harris' portrait still (hopefully) hangs on the first floor...

Here are links to

The library's website (it will open on the membership page)

And Thaddeus Mason Harris (from the Dorchester Atheneaum website, I do not know if he was also a member there)

Hawthorne, I think you all know...


  1. devastating news...as a member for some years (and spending much time in the basement) I can only pray that the damage is minimized...

  2. Me too. The emails sound upbeat, but it just has to be a mess...