Providence Athenaeum

Providence, Rhode Island | C.1836

Photo Credit: Accidentally Wes Anderson

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From sultry romances to path-paving protagonists – the shelves of this 200-year-old library have no shortage of stories to share, but we have chosen two such tales to tell from within the walls of America’s fourth-oldest library, the Providence Athenaeum.  

Edgar Allen Poe’s work may line some of these shelves, but the man himself experienced happiness and heartache within these walls. A decade after the Athenaeum was built, Sarah Helen Whitman would brighten the dark world of Poe with her own beautiful writing and poetry – so much so that he asked for her hand in marriage. Much of their engagement was spent between these bookcases, reading & writing together until just two days before their wedding day, when their story took a turn.

On a snowy December afternoon a mysterious messenger slipped Sarah a note alerting her of Poe’s broken promise of sobriety. Distraught, Sarah immediately called off the wedding, leaving the poet alone in the library, dumped as dramatically as a character from his own stories. 

Moving away from the “Romance Section”, we follow the triumphant tale of another leading lady: Mary Angell, the Athenaeum’s very first female employee who left a lasting mark that can still be found in the library today.

In 1883, Mary embarked on the herculean task of organizing the contents of the massive library. She created a card catalogue system that logged every piece of literature the library had previously acquired and all that newly entered the collection- doing so all by hand.Mary’s work paved the way for the entire collection to be fully achieved — and she is forever immortalized by her handwritten notes that can still be found within the card catalog. As if Mary didn’t leave enough to explore, patrons of the library have ensured that her tradition lives on, scattering notes of their own, hidden in desks throughout the library. Look hard enough, and you might just find the one we left for you 😉

The tales of these heroines of the Athenaeum leave us with an important lesson. Even in a place full of the great stories of our time, some of the best have yet to unfold, waiting to happen *between* these storied shelves, rather than on them.

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