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Boston Athenaeum - Library, Museum, Historic Site...

The Boston Athenaeum is the largest membership library in the country and one of the oldest. Founded in 1807, it retains a formal Boston Brahmin feel and is the primary library for many Beacon Hill residents, but both visitors and new members are encouraged and the membership is quite varied. It feels a bit like a secret hideaway with lots of treasures to discover, and it is one of Boston's cultural highlights.  The facade is deceptive since it hides a very grand interior and a much taller building than one would expect from the street view. Right on the first floor, there are important works of art, such as Jean-Antoine Houdon's bust of the Marquis de Lafayette, which was made for Thomas Jefferson, and several works by Allan Rohan Crite, the dean of New England African-American artists, who died in 2007. There's also a charming two-room children's library with weekly storytimes and events for families. Older children have a monthly book discussion group. There are quite a few children's authors who write and do research at the Boston Athenaeum, which hosts the annual Boston Globe - Horn Book Awards for Children's Literature.

Exhibitions are FREE (best bargain in downtown Boston) and open to the public.  In the summer of 2008, the exhibition is all about New England summer vacation destinations of the 19th century with many images of grand hotels, trains, and steamships. The Boston Athenaeum's National Historic Landmark building is a half block from the State House, King's Chapel, Boston Common, and the Freedom Trail and looks out over the Granary Burying Ground. It is easily accessible from the subway at Park Street Station. The bathrooms are also clean and there is air conditioning. It's a good place to visit on those hot, frigid, or rainy days.  Visitors are restricted to the first floor and once signed in they can wander around the first floor's public spaces. Free tours of the whole building for the public are given on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3:00 p.m. - you have to call ahead to make an appointment. 617-227-0270.

The Athenaeum hosts dozens of lectures, book talks, chamber music concerts, afternoon teas, movies, puppet shows, nember receptions, and other events during the year, mostly for members and their guests, a few for the public. Evening events have wine and cheese receptions afterwards so that you can mingle with other event attendees. There is an active group of younger members (under age 41) that organizes additional outings, special events with the curators, a Saturday morning reception every other month, and a really fun annual April Fools' Party. Younger members also get a reduced membership rate, starting at $115/year (as of Summer 2008). Family/household rates are also a good deal - $175 for younger families and $290 for the regular rate. Membership for an individual aged 41+ is $230/year. Membership applications are at the front desk and online at

Scholars can apply for fellowships and can make appointments online to see rare materials at no cost.

The fifth floor of the building was featured in the movies A Civil Action and With Honors and is one of the most beautiful and peaceful places to get writing, research, or other work done as no talking is allowed. Nearby is a members' lounge and terrace, both pleasant places to eat a bag lunch. There's WiFi throughout the building, reference librarians, newspapers and periodicals, and an outstanding collection of rare materials. The open stacks contain many older books that most other libraries wouldn't let you check out. Members get to wander the building at will, as if it were their own private library. It's particularly fun to bring friends and show them things like George Washington's personal library, which is located here.

One of the nicest things about the Athenaeum is that it's a place you can belong to throughout the stages of your life - from young student to active twentysomething to parent of young children to retirement. The other members are interesting people - lots of writers, academics, and historians as you'd expect, but also just people in lots of fields who generally love to read or love Boston history or its architecture - or maybe just learning new things in a inspiring atmosphere with some social time built in. There are monthly discussion groups, ranging from culinary to Proust to WWII, which give the members an opportunity to exchange their thoughts and knowhow. Most events (including an elegant Wednesday afternoon tea twice a month) take place during the fall, winter, and spring and outside of the exhibitions it gets a bit sleepy in the summer when the Athenaeum is closed on Saturdays.

The library and gallery are open year-round on Mondays from 9-8 p.m., which is helpful for the working crowd. Other hours are Tuesday-Friday 9-5:30. Saturdays the hours are 9-4 after Labor Day weekend in September and before Memorial Day weekend in May.

My 11-year old wants to be a librarian, so I see a Mom and Daughter trip into Boston in my near future! Thansk--I never heard of this place before.
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