Exploring the Boston Athenæum

If you like books, art, history, or going on dates to places where you can’t talk to the other person then you need to add the Boston Athenæum to your Bucket List right now.

The Boston Athenæum is one of the oldest independent libraries in the United States and the society that runs the library offers free, hour-long tours a couple days a week. The tours are limited to 10 people and are based on reservations so make sure you plan ahead for this one.

Getting There:

Finding a place to park in Boston is always a challenge, especially if you’re like me and struggle with parallel parking. The library is right next to Boston Common and the State House so it’s a tourists’ playground but fortunately there’s a small parking lot right across the street and it wasn’t too much to park for the day.

If you park your car and see an old stone building with big red doors that read 10 1/2 you’re in the right place. (My Harry Potter side wished it had been 9 3/4)

boston athenæum library

The Tour:

The best explanation I got for the address being 10 1/2 is that the library actually combines two buildings, although you would never know by looking at the street side of the building or even once you’re inside. We went to one balcony overlooking the Granary Burying Ground where they pointed out to us the separation of the buildings – I got in trouble for taking my phone out to take a picture at this point (oops.)

It is independently owned and people pay a lot to be members of this library so any and all unaccompanied guests and photos are restricted to the first floor. Not to mention most of the 550,000 books in the library are hundreds of years old and all the original artwork scattered around.

This original artwork includes a life mask of Abraham Lincoln, the same one used to model the Lincoln Memorial. The first American version of the Encyclopedia was printed in 1798, George Washington bought two sets of these Encyclopedias and one of the sets (sans two volumes) is kept in the Boston Athenæum.

Another interesting book you can find here is a mix of art and literature – the Skin Book. Luckily for us, there was a man in our tour group who had heard about the book and had asked in the beginning if we would be able to see it – our amazing tour guide went out of her way at the end to talk to us about it.

The Skin Book is just as it sounds – a book bound by human skin. It’s on display in a glass case so it’s not one of the circulating books in the library and it does have some interesting history. The man whose skin bounds the book was James Allen, he was in prison for murder in the early 1800s. When he died he had one request, bound this book in his skin and give it to the man who had accused him of murder. It stayed in that man’s family for a couple generations before being donated to the library.

These highlights are just small parts of the hour-long tour at the Boston Athenæum. You have to go and see for yourself how much history and art are really between the walls of the library and enjoy the many books circulating the world which all have a story of their own.


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