The Athenaeum of Philadelphia: The Athenaeum
219 S. 6th Street
The Athenaeum at 219 6th street, founded in 1814, was one of America’s most prestigious libraries during the 1800s. Presidents Adams, Jackson, and Van Buren all visited. Libraries in the early 1800s were subscription based however; there was no such thing as a free library. Members who paid the annual fee were the only ones who could use the library’s services. Members who held stock also got a discount on their fees.
The Athenaeum at its beginning was meant for the well educated who wanted a space to read books on topics, like science and politics, and to read literature. Early members were exemplified by the first President and the first treasurer of the organization. William Tilghman, the president, studied at what was then the College of Philadelphia, now the University of Pennsylvania. He was Chief Justice of the US Circuit Court that included Pennsylvania. He later became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The treasurer, Roberts Vaux, was a noted philanthropist and was interested in prison reform and abolition.
The library boasted newspapers in French, magazines in German, and plenty of periodicals from Britain and the USA. According to one the Athenaeum’s annual reports, it also had eight volumes of Benjamin Franklin’s personal copy of the Pennsylvania Gazette from the first printing to 1758 that had his notes in the margins. These went missing in 1876.
The library did not get its own building until 1845. Previously it used a few rooms on the first floor of the American Philosophical Society, later taking up the entire first floor. When the Athenaeum finally was able to buy a lot at the current location, a Scottish immigrant named John Notman designed it in the style of an Italian Renaissance palazzo. This style was popular in Britain at the time. The Athenaeum initially rented out two of its three floors to organizations like the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Membership at the Athenaeum dropped after the creation of the Free Library of Philadelphia in 1894. The Athenaeum was no longer able to properly maintain its own building even when it started allowing book circulation. Efforts to raise money to help fund itself were not successful. Unlike some of the other subscription based libraries in the country, the Athenaeum survived though.
In the 1960s, new leadership provided the spark needed to bring this institution into the modern era. They focused the Athenaeum to be on rare books and periodicals from the 1800s but kept the subscription system. With national foundations and donors willing to support the library now, the new focus gave the library a second chance. The Victorian Society in America also moved into the building. This new tenant attracted donors. For example, Samuel J Dornsife’s collection of Victorian era architecture helped the library establish a significant amount of sources concerning the era.
In the 1970s, The Athenaeum decided to fill a gap in Philadelphia records and research: architecture. No institution in Philadelphia at the time actively conducted research and collected records in architecture. The library collected over 300,000 photographs and 220,000 drawings by 26,500 architects and engineers filling the gap. In particular, the Athenaeum collected items related to Philadelphia architecture, buying the records of early firms. More recently, the library has collected works of stained glass and decorative painters. In 1999, the collaboration of the Athenaeum with the Philadelphia Historical Commission, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and the University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives, made available to the public online for free information on 270,000 projects and buildings with 130,000 images and 26,500 biographical essays on various architects, engineers, and contractors. All of these can be found at philadelphiabuildings.org.
From today’s perspective, the Athenaeum may seem a relic from an older time with its subscription service and its building, but the Athenaeum attracts different types of people now. Unlike a more general library, the modern Athenaeum is able to enjoy the effects of specialization. The Athenaeum stands today a combination of both the past and the present.