Before there were free public libraries in North America, there were membership funded libraries. Often called Athenaeums, these literary associations were supported by dues paying members whose fees were used to buy books, pay librarians, and lease space. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the concept for the first American athenaeum came from that dynamo of 18th century innovation Benjamin Franklin in 1731. Prior to the advent of the free public library in the 19th century, member supported athenaeums and libraries were found throughout North America. Prominent examples can still be found in Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, Providence, and Cincinnati. There’s even one in my little village dating from 1760 and still active.
I was excited to find that the athenaeum concept has been revived at the new Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum. Just opened last month, this library and cultural center’s mission is to promote the literary arts through its library, book related cultural events, work space for writers, and preservation of private book collections.
Located in a landmark 1930 YMCA building, the Folio is open to the general public, but members have access to browse the stacks and rare book collections, reserve writing spaces, borrow books, and participate in literary events. Memberships start at $75 per year.