National Library Week: What is it all about? Thursday, Apr 2 2015 


Hooray for libraries! National Library Week begins in just TEN days! We can hardly wait but maybe you’re wondering, “What is that all about?” Lucky for you I majored in history and would love to tell you the story…

National Library week (NLW) is sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA) and is a time to celebrate libraries, librarians, and all that libraries have to offer us and provide for us. This event is hosted every April and always has a theme. This year, NLW is April 12 – 18 and the theme is “Unlimited Possibilities @ Your Library ®.”

The first ever NLW occurred in 1958. The ALA explains that “in the mid-1950s, research showed that Americans were spending less on books and more on radios, televisions and musical instruments. Concerned that Americans were reading less, the ALA and the American Book Publishers formed a nonprofit citizens organization called the National Book Committee in 1954…In 1957, the committee developed a plan for National Library Week based on the idea that once people were motivated to read, they would support and use libraries.” The theme in 1958 was “Wake Up and Read!” The celebration was so successful it became an annual event.

Through NLW there are some more specific celebrations to be had. For example, April 14th is National Library Workers Day, the day we get to say “thank you” to all of the librarians who help keep our libraries working. April 15th is National Bookmobile Day and April 16th is Celebrate Teen Literature Day.

You must be on the edge of your seat wondering, “How can I get involved with this awesome celebration of libraries?” With this year’s theme being “Unlimited Possibilities @ Your Library ®” the ALA is asking everyone to share what they’ve made with the help of their library. Maybe you checked out a knitting book and made a scarf, maybe you made a video in the building, wrote your memoirs, or maybe you were simply able to finish your homework in a quiet space. Whatever it is, share it on Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #librarymade. At the Athenaeum we would just love to see what we’ve helped you make but the ALA is also offering a chance to win a $100 gift card beginning April 13th. Now you are completely prepared to embark on the week-long celebration that is National Library Week!


#librarymade promotion details:

The Arctic 1818 – 1909 Monday, Jun 2 2014 

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The Providence Athenaeum is planning to explore the Victorian fascination with the Arctic. Starting with the above display from our circulating collection.

Tomorrow night, June 3rd, Rhode Island College Professor Russell Potter will present “‘Travel by Pictorial Means’: Victorian Virtualities of the Arctic Regions.” Potter, author of Arctic Spectacles: The Frozen North in Visual Culture 1818-1875, will illustrate some of the ways in which Victorian audiences encountered the perils of the Arctic, seeming to accompany polar explorers via a variety of visual and mechanical contrivances, among them the Panorama, the Diorama, the Moving Panorama, and the Magic Lantern. Original engravings, handbills, and advertisements of these shows will be accompanied by images from books and lantern slides of the period, including some from the Athenaeum’s collections. The talk will conclude with a visit to one of the last, and most ambitious of polar spectacles, Carl Hagenbeck’s Eismeer- Panorama of 1896, which featured live polar bears and seals, with predator and prey separated by deep ditches hidden from the spectators.


Our next foray will be on June 9th when The Wonder Show presents The Arctic Theatre Royal, a magic lantern show featuring images and text sourced from the Athenaeum’s Special Collections. During the 19th century, Arctic exploration captivated the public imagination. Images of unfamiliar icescapes pictured in panoramas and magic lantern shows dominated visual culture. The Arctic –and specifically finding a northwest passage through it– was a main subject of national interest in England at the time. One of the most successful voyages of this kind was head by Captain William Parry in 1819. This would be the first British naval expedition of the 19th century to winter in arctic conditions, and its activities and precautions became a model for future expeditions. Parry instituted musical and theatrical entertainments, school classes, meteorological and magnetic observations, and even a weekly newspaper, The North Georgia Gazette and Winter Chronicle. Plays were performed every fortnight with written reviews following each act.  The Wonder Show’s performance, The Arctic Theatre Royal, takes its name from Parry’s shipboard theater. In this newly written production, The Wonder Show will share original poetry and text from Parry’s voyage, utilizing a form of entertainment used to share early glimpses of the Arctic, a magic lantern show.  The content comes directly from the shipboard documents of 1819, including Parry’s journal and the North Georgia Gazette, which are both housed within the Athenaeum’s Travel and Exploration Collection.



Collections Librarian, Kate Wodehouse will be mounting an exhibit in the Philbrick Rare Book Room titled: A Peep at the Arctic: Visions of Polar Exploration, 1818-1909  available for viewing from June 15th to August 31st, but more on that later. For details on the events mentioned above check our June Programs page.

Zarafa: Spectacle of the Giraffe, 1826 – 1839 Friday, Mar 14 2014 

What use Giraffe pt.2 001

     As a complement to the Salon series, “What Use is the Giraffe?” the exhibition Zarafa: Spectacle of the Giraffe, 1826-1839 documents the historical, political, and social/cultural influence of the Pasha of Egypt’s gift of a giraffe to King Charles X of France in 1826. The “bel animal du roi” wintered in Marseille where she was met by the natural historian Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, and escorted on foot by an entourage that included several exotic attendants and three cows, on the 560 mile journey to Paris. She created a growing spectacle as crowds gathered along the route to see the first giraffe in Europe in over 300 years, and her image appeared on decorative objects like ceramics and wall- paper, influenced hairstyles, and led to paint colors with such names as “belly of giraffe.”

     The exhibition culminates in the arrival of the first giraffe or “camelopard” onto American soil, which was on display in downtown Providence in 1839.

This exhibit will be on display in the Philbrick Rare Book Room from February 7th to May 31, 2014.

Thanks to guest blogger, Kate Wodehouse, Collections Librarian

What use is the Giraffe? Wednesday, Jan 29 2014 

The Athenaeum Salon Series for late winter/spring 2014 begins on Friday, February 7th with part one of our new series, ‘What use is the giraffe?’ — The Evolution of Science, Society, and Spectacle in the Cosmopolitan 19th Century. Read more about the background for the series here, including a description of the February 7th Salon:

In the summer of 1827 a very young giraffe arrived in Paris, a gift for King Charles X from Muhammad Ali, the Pasha of Egypt, who had reason to curry political favor from the ruler of France. The giraffe’s first stop in France had been Marseilles, where she had arrived by ship from Alexandria in the fall of 1826, and where she and the two men who had attended her on the voyage – one a Beduoin and one of Sudanese origin – had spent the winter. In late May, with a retinue that included her handlers, along with three cows to provide her with milk, the giraffe set off to walk to the 560 miles to Paris. This precarious undertaking was overseen by one of the most important French naturalists of the day, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who had made his name 30 years earlier as a member of Napoleon’s scientific expedition to Egypt. Geoffroy had also contributed scholarship to the Description de l’Egypte, a multi-volume report of the expedition’s findings on natural history and science in ancient and modern Egypt; its publication and dissemination between 1809 and 1829 had ignited a blaze of “Egyptomania” – a craze for all things Egyptian – in France and around the world.

The giraffe’s journey took 41 days, paced in part to accommodate the increasing and frenzied crowds of thousands, even tens of thousands, of eager spectators that she attracted in towns along the way.  Shortly after arriving in Paris she was presented to the King, and thereafter made her home in the Jardin des Plantes, where for over a year she created an unprecedented sensation, sending Parisians into a state of delirious “giraffomania.” In her extreme, unknowable otherness and mysterious self-possession, she became the means by which all manner of ideas and desires – cultural, political, and sociological – could be given expression, and she appeared as a character, mouthpiece, and/or image in everything from novels, plays, and philosophical essays to political cartoons to designs for hats, wallpaper, and souvenir sweets. Her celebrity waned after 1830, and during her remaining 15 years she was sought out only, as Balzac noted in an essay on the vagaries of fame, by “nannies with young children, simpletons, and backward provincials.” But in a fittingly quiet way, her allure endures, and she is still visited today – albeit in taxidermied form – at the Museum of Natural History in La Rochelle.

Yet, as when she was alive, it is her mystery more than her manifestation that makes her noteworthy today, and a host of scholars and artists are now interpreting her significance across a range of disciplines, including science, history, and the arts. We invite you to meet several of them and learn about their work this spring when we feature a new Salon series, ‘What use is the giraffe?’ – The Evolution of Science, Society, and Spectacle in the Cosmopolitan 19th Century, and an accompanying exhibit, Zarafa: Spectacle of the Giraffe, 1826-1839.

The question “What use is the giraffe?” in our series title comes from a pamphlet written by Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. We chose it because in the story of the 19th century’s elusive giraffe we will trace the intertwined chronologies of the study of natural history and science, including evolving ideas about the origin of life, racial differentiation, the role of order in the natural and man-made worlds, and the development of sociological theories;  the effect of new, applied technologies on travel, communications, international relations, economics, and the craze for crazes, including the craze for ever more dazzling public spectacles that called into question a person’s ability to rely on direct experience to distinguish what was “real” from what was not; as well as the political responses that all these developments brought about.

Perhaps best of all is that in preparing for this series and exhibit we have stumbled upon traces of the mysterious giraffe in the very collections of the Athenaeum itself. One of our most beautiful and important holdings is our copy of the Description de l’Egypte. It is treasured not only for the significance of the work itself, but for what its purchase, made in 1837 as our Benefit Street building was under construction, tells us about the aspirations of the Athenaeum’s founders for both the library and the community it would serve. The fact that the giraffe’s protector, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, was a contributor to the Description thrilled us, but we were especially gratified to discover a more direct connection to the giraffe. Bard Graduate Center Assistant Professor Michele Majer, one of the Salon speakers we will feature this spring, wrote a article describing an essay by Balzac, in which he used the giraffe’s waning popularity to warn the ultra-royalist Prime Minister, Prince Jules de Polignac, that his power, too, would be fleeting. Balzac was prescient; the essay was written on the eve of the 1830 revolution that would see the government overthrown and the Prince forced into exile in England. His belongings were eventually sold, including his copy of the Description. It was the Prince de Polignac’s very copy that the Athenaeum was able to purchase when it came up for auction several years later.

The purchase was arranged by founding member and bibliophile John Russell Bartlett, who then designed and commissioned the Egyptian cabinet that housed the volumes of the Description until the library’s addition in the 1970s, when they were moved to the new climate-controlled Philbrick Rare Book Room, where they reside today. We still cherish the cabinet, and it is fitting that just as the giraffe exhibit and programming get underway, it will be moved into the Philbrick Rare Book Room, where it will be better protected and can be seen to full advantage. Come view it anew, along with the exhibit on the giraffe; join us for the Salon series, too – and don’t miss the host of giraffical activities in the Children’s Library this spring, see the full list on our website! We thank Dr. Joseph Chazan for his munificent sponsorship of the series, which was also made possible by the generous support of Susan Jaffe Tane and several friends of the Athenaeum who wish to remain anonymous.

Join us on Friday, February 7th for the first Salon in the series as well as the opening of the exhibit Zarafa: Spectacle of the Giraffe, 1826-1839:

Salon: University of Pennsylvania History & Sociology of Science Associate Professor John Tresch on “Transformative Milieu: The Paris of Geoffroy’s Giraffe,” part 1 of ‘What use is the giraffe?’ – The Evolution of Science, Society, and Spectacle in the Cosmopolitan 19th Century, a series on the giraffe who went to Paris in 1827.

The giraffe who accompanied Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire from Egypt to Paris arrived at a city in the throes of rapid change. The most exciting cultural developments of the 1820s and 30s embraced that change. Napoleon’s empire had fallen, and the Restoration was under threat by republicans, liberals, and socialists. Romanticism laid waste to classicism and rationalism; new technically-enhanced spectacles created dizzying and sublime effects. Physicists and engineers abandoned  the clockwork universe to explore the conversions and interactions between electricity, magnetism, heat and light, immersing them all within ambient, vibrating ethers. Steam engines and other novel technologies– batteries, photography, printing presses– rose up as “romantic machines,” merging with nature and transforming the social order. The giraffe itself was evidence for Geoffroy’s argument– inspired by Lamarck– that species changed in response to their environment or milieu. Geoffroy’s ideas had a transformative impact on his own milieu, with its shape-shifting technologies, machines, and laws: for George Sand, Balzac, Hugo and others, he was a philosopher of pantheism at war with crushing materialism, a prophet of unity in an age of fracture. The giraffe was in very good hands.

Our Salon sponsor is Dr. Joseph A. Chazan;  also made possible in part by Susan Jaffe Tane and several friends of the Athenaeum who wish to remain anonymous. Free and open to the public, the event takes place at the Providence Athenaeum, 251 Benefit Street, Providence; more info: 421-6970.

Ravenous would like to thank guest blogger, Christina Bevilacqua, Director of Programs and Public Engagement for this post.

Thomas Wilson Dorr Exhibit Thursday, Dec 5 2013 

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“Thomas Wilson Dorr and the Rhode Island Rebellion of 1842”  on display from November 15 – December 31, 2013

By the 1840s, RI’s 17th-century colonial charter restricting suffrage to property owners effectively disenfranchised 60 percent of potential voters. Thomas Wilson Dorr’s attempt to remedy this through constitutional reform led to armed insurrection and ended with Dorr in jail. The Dorr Rebellion, the only revolutionary republican movement in the antebellum period that claimed the people’s sovereignty as the basis for the right to alter or abolish a form of government, represented a critical moment in the two fractious decades leading up to the American Civil War.

Historian Erik J. Chaput spoke on November 29th on his new book The People’s Martyr: Thomas Wilson Dorr and His 1842 Rhode Island Rebellion an event we co-sponsored with the  RI Historical Society. For more information on Dr. Chaput’s work with the Dorr Rebellion please see: Dorr Rebellion Project History. Phillips Memorial Library, Providence College, c2011.

Thank you to our generous Exhibition Loaners: Russell DeSimone, Rhode Island Historical Society, and The Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design

Works Consulted: The Broadsides of the Dorr Rebellion, by Russell DeSimone & Daniel Schofield.  Rhode Island Supreme Court Historical Society, 1992.
Charging Book, 1841-2, Providence Athenaeum Archives

Thanks to guest blogger, Kate Wodehouse, Collections Librarian

Fifty Years: November 22, 1963- November 22, 2013 Thursday, Nov 21 2013 


Why is it that millions who were not even alive on November 22, 1963, are still fascinated by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy? And why do so many–a staggering 75% in a recent poll conducted by accomplished pollsters Peter Hart and Geoffrey Garin–question the findings of the Warren Commission?

It seems obvious that his death would have had less of an impact if Kennedy had been less admired during his lifetime, and had not been the bearer of the hopes of a generation for a better future. And that admiration continues a half-century later, with surveys ranking him the most highly rated president of the last 50 years. How come? Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, sums up the phenomenon in his new book The Kennedy Half-Century as follows:

“The  American people’s idealization of John Kennedy, their determination to overlook his obvious flaws, and successive presidents’ use of the Kennedy record for their own ends have been the sparks that have repeatedly reignited JFK’s influence.”

Mr. Sabato’s book is just one of over 50 books released this year for the anniversary of the assassination. The above quote is from Lenny Picker’s article, “Books About the Kennedy Assassination” found in Publisher’s Weekly, and NPR’s report “50 Years After Assassination, Kennedy Books Offer New Analysis” makes recommendations for titles to pursue.

Thanks to guest blogger, Mary Brower, Maestro of Circulation, and the creator of the Kennedy exhibit pictured above.

Centenary of the Publication of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way Wednesday, Oct 30 2013 

The celebrations have been going on all year, all around the world. There is an interesting sampling of events on this Pinterest board. Goodreads started a reading group of  À la recherche du temps perdu in January, the Morgan Library had a marvelous exhibit in February, the New York Times did a weeks long series in May on A Century of Proust.  Now it is the Providence Athenaeum’s turn. Our schedule of events:

ATHProustPostcard2013 2

Christina Bevilacqua, Director of Programs and Public Engagement, has brought her love of Proust to the Athenaeum and every November has celebrated with a Proustfest. This year she has outdone herself and hopes to answer the question, why Proust? We hope you will share in the madeleines and “create meaningful memories in true Proustian fashion,” CB.

One last delight, a slideshow of Proust images from the Wall Street Journal.

The Fantastic Forest: An Excursion through the Old Juveniles Collection Wednesday, Oct 23 2013 


The Providence Athenaeum has a long history of collecting and circulating books to children. The Old Juveniles Collection, on display in the Philbrick Rare Book Room this month as part of the R. I. Center for the Book, Art of the Book Program, are our oldest children’s books, and they are on display until October 31st.


There are three collections of children’s books at the Athenaeum. There are the contemporary books in the Sayles Gorham Children’s Library, the Old Juveniles Collection, and the Raven Room books. The Raven Room Collection is made up of well loved older books, that previous librarians were unable to part with due to their je ne se qua and that are still circulated with special permission. My guess is many were affectionately shared with children:


Check the R. I. Center for the Book website for the other libraries exhibiting children’s books this month.

How to Commemorate the Anniversary of Poe’s Death Monday, Oct 7 2013 


Photo credit:

Well, if you are in New York, you should visit the Morgan Library and Museum exhibit, Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul, on view from October 4, 2013 through January 26, 2014. One of the donors to the exhibit is Susan Jaffe Tane, who generously lent items from her collection to the Athenaeum in 2009 when Collections Librarian, Kate Wodehouse did the Sex, Lies, and Edgar Allan Poe exhibit. The New York Times review of the Morgan exhibit is enticing.

Christina Bevilacqua, Director of Programs and Public Engagement, visited the Morgan exhibit over the weekend and while wandering the streets of New York later encountered this on the sidewalk:


If you do an image search for Poe what you find are hundreds of  representations of him and his works. Some are very interpretive and creative, like the above stencil; all are inspired by E.A.P.  Celebrate the 164th Anniversary of Poe’s death.

Banned Books Week Monday, Sep 30 2013 


The Escritoire display this month celebrates the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week, an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and highlighting the dangers of restricting or removing reading materials.

The selection of books is designed to reflect the diversity among the books that have faced challenges or been banned. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Alexie Sherman, a YA novel which recounts the story of a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, for example, features alongside Marx’s Communist Manifesto. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, a memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution told through comic strip images features alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses.

As we commemorate 30 years of Banned Books Week the display is also designed to celebrate the past achievements and ongoing work of librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers and readers in ensuring that these books remain available. For example, Machiavelli’s The Prince, which has faced controversy since its first appearance in the sixteenth century, features alongside one of 2012’s most challenged titles, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

Thanks to guest blogger, Kirsty Dain, Circulation Assistant, for her exhibit and post.

Books in the Escritoire Display Fall 2013

Angelou, I know why the caged bird sings (B ANG)
Atwood, The handmaid’s tale (F ATW)
Burgess, Clockwork Orange (F BUR)
Hosseini, The Kite Runner (F HOS)
Joyce Ulysses (F JOY)
Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird (F LEE)
Machiavelli, The Prince and the Discourses (320.1 M184P)
Mahfouz, Children of the Alley (F MAH)
Marx,Capital: The Communist Manifesto and other writings of Karl Marx (331 M369C)
Morrison, Beloved (F MOR)
Pilkey, Captain Underpants (JF PIL)
Plath, The Bell Jar (F PLA)
Rushdie, Satanic Verses (F RUS)
Saramago, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (F SAR)
Satrapi, Persepolis (B S2535)
Sherman, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (YA ALE)
Solzhenitsyn, One day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch (F SOL)
Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle (F VON)

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