Through the red doors of the Boston Athenaeum at 10 ½ Beacon Street is a retreat for books and bibliophiles. The half a million volumes fill bookshelves on the five floors and galleries in quiet, airy rooms, with tables for patrons and extra lamps in nooks, creating a reader’s hideaway. Antique furniture and white, stone sculptures are displayed, adding to the atmosphere of the National Historical Landmark building next to the Granary Burying Ground.
Founded in 1807, The Boston Athenaeum is one of the oldest membership libraries in the United States, with over 500,000 volumes. It hosts a large portion of George Washington’s private library and its members included Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Quincy Adams and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Despite its history, the Athenaeum must decide its position in a technology driven culture to appeal to a younger generation of patrons and meet yearly membership goals. In response, the library staff has realized the importance of increasing electronic materials and the digital collection.
James Reid-Cunningham, deputy director of the Boston Athenaeum, sits in his office on a gallery level of the Athenaeum. Three antique globes stand on the floor by the walls of his office. From the large, floor-length window looking onto the first floor, two white-haired members wearing bowties can be seen talking by a stack of books.
“The focus on collection digitization has been a primary effort over the last five or six years and it really is aimed at opening up the collection and telling people more about what we have,” Reid-Cunningham said.
Patricia Boulos, the digital programs librarian, oversees the digital lab at the Athenaeum. The lab is currently working on digitizing the Boston directories, the 18th century phone book, from 1789-1900. This project has met with great resound from researchers, Boulos said.
The digitized collection is available to anyone online. Part of the idea behind digitizing the collection is to make materials that would have previously only been used by scholars, accessible to the general public, Reid-Cunningham said.
Digital collections by libraries are part of creating a cultural record, said John Palfrey, a technology expert and author of “Bibliotech” about the importance of libraries.
The goal for the Athenaeum is to choose unique items from the collection to digitize by considering what people may like and taking requests from staff and researchers. Reid-Cunningham doesn’t feel that it is important to have every item in the collection scanned. “I never felt that that was our future,” he said.
Making the digital collection available to the general public is part of the Athenaeum’s effort to be more approachable. “We have to be focused on members because they help pay the bills, but we do want to be more open to the public,” Reid-Cunningham said.
Boulos considers how the digital collection will benefit future members and thinks of it as a way to balance living in the 21st century while retaining the institution’s standing as a respite from the world, she said.
The Athenaeum is not usually quick to embrace new technology. “We are careful adopters. We wait around a bit for other people to make mistakes,” Reid-Cunningham said.
Perhaps the most cutting-edge project upcoming for the Athenaeum will be the Cuseum smartphone app, expected to launch in June for the first floor gallery, which has about 8,000 to 9,000 visitors each year. Cuseum, a startup focused on mobile technology, will work with a beacon located in artwork in the Athenaeum building. Visitors will receive information about the art or exhibit they are viewing directly on their phones from the beacon signal.
Efforts to make the Athenaeum more inviting to the public extend to the nearly 200 events put on each year, many of which, such as all of the noontime events, are open to the public. About half of the evening events are also open to the public, according to Victoria O’Malley, director of events.
These events are a way to show people what the Athenaeum has to offer, said Michael Jugenheimer, director of annual giving and membership.
Palfrey supported this idea that events can make libraries more attractive and welcoming. They are also an opportunity to show literacy and support libraries standing as “producers of materials,” for public access.
“Being a membership library we find that we want to stay true to our members first and foremost, but we still want to be able to get our story out there to the public, so it’s a fine line because when you’re paying a membership there are certain things that come along with that,” O’Malley said.
In addition to the events, the over 5,000 current members benefit from the circulating collection
of half a million volumes, with about 3,000 new titles added per year, as well as the special collections of rare books and private reading rooms.
The historic building is a draw for members. “An attraction of membership is the building as a place to go to. Members often tell me that it is a home away from home…It’s always been a place to go to meet people with similar interests,” Reid-Cunningham said.
Elizabeth Covart, an Athenaeum member and historian of early American history, primarily uses the Athenaeum as a place to work. “I love the fifth floor reading room. Having all of the books around you and the ambiance propels and motivates my work,” she said.
As a researcher, Covart primarily uses the Athenaeum’s microfilm reader, which is “wonderful. It does everything but read the document,” she said.
The Athenaeum hopes that access to e-resources like J-stor and LexisNexis will be a draw for members. However, Covart finds the e-resources redundant with those offered through the Boston Public Library, both institutions offer J-stor, for example. She also finds the digital collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society more useful for her work.
Although Covart does not really use the online and digital resources, she commends the level of service at the Athenaeum. “The reference librarians are fantastic. You can turn to anyone, and if they don’t know the answer then they’ll point you in the direction of the right person and call them on the phone to make sure they’re at their desk when you get there.”
In recent efforts to appeal to members, the Athenaeum revamped its website and provides wifi access throughout the building and extended its hours. Social media is not a high priority, but the Athenaeum does post about once per day on its Facebook page, which has over 3,300 likes, and on Twitter, where it has over 2,700 followers. Many of the Athenaeum’s lectures are available to view online, as well as past exhibitions, thanks to the digital lab.
Libraries need to consider new and innovative ways to continue to provide materials to the public, Palfrey said, and align their efforts with what their communities need.
Although efforts are being made to make the Athenaeum more accessible, reaching out to prospective members is a challenge.
Current members usually hear about the Athenaeum from a friend, Reid-Cunningham said. In response, the Athenaeum is experimenting with publicity, including social media, to see what will be most beneficial in an attempt to gain members from people who have never been to the Athenaeum, Reid-Cunningham said.
Reid-Cunningham said that the Athenaeum plans to have people in new positions to focus solely on publicity and evaluating social media use by the summer.
Jugenheimer admitted that the Athenaeum does not do as much advertising and marketing as it could and that it is limited in that area. But with the advertising that is done in places like Art New England and the Boston Symphony Orchestra program.
Membership among the 35 and younger age group is up 20 percent, Jugenheimer said, though these young patrons make up about 10 percent of total members.
The discounted membership cost for the under 35 group, $200 per year, makes the Athenaeum more attractive and affordable for young patrons, like herself, Covart said, compared with the rate of similar institutions in the area.
The Athenaeum is still balancing its institutional and historical objectives with a digitally driven society to remain relevant. The Athenaeum’s importance, for O’Malley, comes from its resources and collection, “While it may not be for the masses, there are definitely those people that are looking to find that information,” she said.