Book Excerpt



Providence: The Providence Athenaeum, 2003. 9 x 10.5 inches. cloth, dust jacket. xxxvi, 219+(1) pages. First edition, one of 250 hardbound copies. An outstanding history of this most important historical and influential library. The Providence Athenaeum, 250 years old in 2003, not only played a significant role in defining the cultural, intellectual, and social life of Rhode Island in its early years, but played a major part in shaping America itself. Having withstood numerous wars..... READ MORE

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A Fiery Beginning

"These subscription Libraries have improv'd the general Conversation of the Americans, made the common Tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most Gentlemen from other Countries and have perhaps contributed in some degree to the Stand so generally made throughout the Colonies in Defence of their Privileges."

In 1753, when Providence was a village of 3,000 souls, a group of far-sighted Rhode Islanders decided to pool their resources to found a library. That same year in London, the capital of the British Empire, the British Museum was created and within it the Department of Printed Books, which eventually formed the core of the British Library. The museum was formed around the collections of Sir Hans Sloane, a wealthy London doctor; it comprised some 50,000 books and thousands of manuscripts, as well as coins, artifacts, and pictures.

The wealth and sophistication of someone like Sioane were a distant dream to the residents of Providence, and a collection of 50,000 books was beyond their imaginings, but their library was to develop over the next 250 years into a very special place. Many of the founders of the Providence Library Company were members of the wealthiest and most politically active families in town. Their names read like a street map of Providence-Allen, Angen, Bowen, Jenckes, Magill, Olney, Power, Sessions, Snow, and Waterman. Some of them were men of national importance, yet they found the time and energy to create a library and see to its affairs.

Providence in 1753
Providence in the mid-eighteenth century was a small collection of wooden houses built on the banks of a river that, in those days, widened into a cove. On the east side of the river was a steep slope; on the west, a plain led to gentle hills. Joseph Bailey, a Massachusetts clergyman who passed through the following year, noted on the east side "two streets of painted houses" above which there was a hill "all cut into gardens, orchards, pleasant fields and enclosures," and on the west side "two or three streets of well-built houses." He admired the city, thought it was "growing and flourishing," and believed it to be "the finest in New England." He thought less well of the inhabitants, however, for in spite of three houses of worship, the people were "in general ... very immoral, licentious and profane and exceeding famous for contempt of the Sabbath." He was appalled to note that "people of all professions" countenanced "gaming, gunning, horse- racing and the like" on Sundays as well as any other day of the week.' That this was not the whole story of Providence is clear from the actions of the men who created its library.

Providence was not yet the center of Rhode Island trade; although it had a fine harbor, most of the shipping was still concentrated in Newport, where, accordingly, there was a convergence of people and of wealth. Newport had about 7,000 residents and its own library, the Redwood, chartered in 1747. Among the citizens of Providence, in spite of the Reverend Bailey's dim view of the locals, were numerous energetic young men who not only wanted to challenge Newport's superiority in matters economic, but to extend their own cultural and practical horizons. They met in March 1753 and drafted the following proposal: Whereas a Collection or Library of usefull and Edifying Books will most certainly tend to the Benefit and Instruction of the Inhabitants of this Town and County of Providence and the Rising Generation thereto belonging- Therefore We the Subscribers considering the Advantages thereof and the Improvements which may be thereby made, not only by us but by our Posterity and for the Encouragement of the Same, have hereunto voluntarily Subscribed our Names and opposite thereto such Sum of Money as we are willing to Contribute to the usefull and Laudable Design aforesaid. "Usefullness and edification"- these were the aims of the founders. They wanted to learn how to navigate a ship or care for a horse, as well as read Plato and Shakespeare. There was as yet no college in the colony and little in the way of schooling was available. There was no customs house, no public market house, no printing press or newspaper, no bank or insurance office. The nearest bookshop was in Boston.