Back to The Future
In a city where the word `oldest’ greets visitors at nearly every turn, The Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport stakes a claim as the oldest lending library in the United States, first opening its doors in 1750. Like every library, though, The Redwood is navigating its way in a digital age, working to remain relevant and vibrant for its patrons. And that’s where the `athenaeum’ part of its name comes in. This month Jim Hummel takes us inside a place that is looking back and ahead at the same time.
For more information about the Redwood Library and Anthenaeum, click here.
In a city where the word `oldest’ greets visitors at nearly every turn, The Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport, chartered in 1747 and opened three years later, stands out. Its original room remains intact - in the same location on Bellevue Avenue, with the same floors and walls that architect Peter Harrison designed 270 years ago. Many of the books that were part of the original collection fill the shelves.
Leca: ``Americans respond to superlatives: We are the oldest. We are the oldest continuously operating in its original locale.’’
Benedict Leca arrived as executive director three years ago.
Leca: ``It’s a neat thing to revitalize the oldest library in a way that is completely true to its mission and yet is absolutely in step with the latest developments in museums and libraries.’’
Walking through the main entrance of The Redwood Library is like taking a stroll back in time - and into the future - simultaneously.
Eighteenth- and 19th- century paintings, sculpture and furniture are interspersed with modern-day books, magazines and newspapers, while a computer terminal helps guide visitors to a rich history of Newport, with manuscripts and artifacts just steps away.
The basement vault holds a treasure trove of old books and furniture.
The Redwood was one of the first buildings in the country to be awarded National Historic Landmark status by Congress in 1962. Despite that, the library has flown largely under the public’s radar for years.
Crowley: ``My first thought was: `How did I not know about this before?’ This is a really amazing piece of American history and American intellectual history. And American library history. And I had never heard of it.’’
Patrick Crowley came from Pennsylvania last year to become The Redwood’s special collections librarian.
Crowley: ``My immediate impressions were it was like stepping back into the past, while remaining in a place that is of prime relevance, so our library is still a lending library. We have been a lending library since we opened our doors in 1750.’’
Like every library, The Redwood is navigating its way in a digital age, so Leca recently secured a grant that will enable the building to expand its broadband access and improve security, allowing it to attract art exhibits from around the world.
Leca: ``We know now that libraries themselves are evolving. It’s data terminals, it’s information being given across a multitude of platforms for all sorts of different types of users. Be it rare books, magazines, the internet, the Cloud, music streaming, all of that stuff.’’
But Leca added that is the `athenaeum’ part that initially attracted him and has helped bring in an increasing number of visitors through programs, exhibits, lectures and concerts. Simply defined, an athenaeum is a place for literary or scientific study.
Leca: ``The word `athenaeum’ puts people off, it sounds kind of academic and arcane, which is some ways it is. When they added the word athenaeum in 1833, they knew very well that The Redwood Library had this role as a broad-based cultural center for the benefit of the entire community.’’
du Pont: ``I try to make anybody and everybody who lives on this island or visits this island feel that there is something here for them and that they are most welcome to be here.’’
Carolyn du Pont has been the library’s director of development and programs the past seven years. She says The Redwood is a membership library.
du Pont: ``People seem to think we’re a public library, because the idea of a membership library is unknown to 99.44 percent of the public. The whole concept of charging people to come in? Why, this is a library? Well we are a library, but what we are, more even than that, in my opinion - the librarians would disagree with me - we are an extraordinary museum. We are a repository of the most extraordinary collection of really important documents and art objects and furniture and crystal and china.’’
The Redwood receives no taxpayer funding, relying on the subscriptions of its 2,000 members, foundation grants and contributions from individuals. Holders of any Rhode Island library card or students with an ID can visit for free. All other visitors pay $10. A basic membership, which gives patrons access to library services is $75 annually; $100 entitles subscribers to attend many events at no additional charge.
The Redwood has dramatically increased the number of events it has every year, holding weekly gatherings in the spring and fall and a dozen special events over the summer, including a gala on the grounds surrounding the building.
On a recent Sunday, nationally-known pianist Virginia Eskin performed for an audience of several dozen.
du Pont: ``All of our programs are open to the public. We charge for some, not all. Our members are charged for practically none.’’
Du Pont said adding the word athenaeum nearly two centuries ago is what sets The Redwood apart from what many think of as a traditional library.
du Pont: ``The library made the decision to become something more than a repository for books, but to become a place where that kind of intellectual activity not only could take place but was encouraged and fostered and nurtured.’’
Adding a variety of programs has increased the membership as well.
du Pont: ``There was a terrific concern that because we have a perfectly wonderful public library, it’s an excellent library, that if we couldn’t offer our members anything more than the ability to come in and get a book, then why wouldn’t they just go down the street, where they could go - as minimal as our membership is. What started out to be something to make our members feel their membership more worthwhile, has now become a wonderful way of bringing in people who have never been in The Redwood Library before into the library to see what an incredibly beautiful space it is.’’
Leca said that at a time when the internet can bring information to anyone, anywhere at any time, The Redwood remains attractive to those looking for both old and new.
Leca: ``This idea that the old must be in opposition to the new is a false one. Because this place in many ways was always new. It was new when they planted it here in 1747. The idea of an athenaeum was new in 1833 and assuming it in its fullness today is new, it’s cutting edge.’’
Just as some people are abandoning their Kindles and iPad for books, Leca says going online is no substitute for a visit.
Leca: ``And cntrary to what you might imagine: well I don’t need to go to the Redwood Library I can just get online and do the virtual tour, but that’s been discredited. This idea that when things are photographed or can be seen online dissuades people from coming, exactly the opposite. They want to see it.’’
In Newport Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.