The Boston Athenaeum Open House Is Back

Books. Books everywhere.

boston athenaeum

A member browses the stacks of the fifth floor reading room. / Photo by Madeline Bilis

Attention local bookworms: your favorite day of the year approaches. The Boston Athenaeum is readying for its third annual open house event.

For those unfamiliar with the Athenaeum, it’s a library-museum hybrid steeped in history that houses rare books and art. There’s also a fair share of those scholarly green banker’s lamps, antique rugs, and a lot of marble busts. Its open house is a magical time where the place opens up its red leather doors for you to explore it.

Normally, the Athenaeum—one of the oldest independent libraries in the United States—only gives tours to non-members on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3 p.m., but the open house dedicates an entire day for you to peruse members-only areas that aren’t typically open to the public.

boston athenaeum

Photo by Madeline Bilis

Open house visitors will follow a self-guided tour through six levels of the building, beginning with the iconic fifth-floor reading room. Docents will be stationed around the building to help guests understand what they’re looking at, whether it’s the King’s Chapel Collection—the oldest colonial library in Boston—or John Singer Sargent paintings.

An athenaeum, by definition, is a membership library dedicated to research and the promotion of learning, named for the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena. The Boston Athenaeum was founded in 1807— it has more than 500,000 books, including the largest portion of George Washington’s personal collection in the country as well as a book bound with human skin (which, unfortunately, is not on view at the moment).

A great deal of the Athenaeum’s collection can be found in the “drum,” which contains 10 floors of shelved books. A few narrow corridors separate the stacks, and spaces between the floor and the shelves offer a peek into the level below it.

Advance tour registration is already sold out, but registration is not required—it just means you can expect to wait in line upon arrival.

Free, Saturday, October 22, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., 10 ½ Beacon St, no admittance after 3 p.m.,

boston athenaeum

The “drum” holds 10 floors of shelved books in the Athenaeum’s collection. / Photo by Madeline Bilis