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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's with a bit of reverence, in a 19th-century temple of learning called the Providence Athenaeum, librarians carefully wind an antique library clock near the circulation desk.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOCK WINDING)

SIMON: This is one of the oldest libraries in the United States, a 19th century library with the soul of a 21st century rave. In fact, it's been called a national model for civic engagement.

Athenaeums are social libraries. You can go there to borrow, you can attend a party, you can bring your dog.

NPR's Jacki Lyden has this story about the life and times of the Ath.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOCK WINDING)

JACKI LYDEN, BYLINE: A bust of the Greek goddess Athena presides from the open mezzanine above the main floor surveying her room. The building opened in 1838. Shafts of light fall through the atrium. A wrought iron railing circles the upper floor and the bookshelves are fronted by pillars and topped with busts, and give the impression of holding up a ceiling.

Perhaps it was here, says Ted Widmer, that he honed his passion for history as a child in a nook that became the Children's Library.

TIM WIDMER: It was like going into a different century.

LYDEN: Today, Widmer directs the John Carter Brown Library, a three-minute walk away from the Athenaeum.

WIDMER: I came here as a little boy, often. I wonder a little bit if it was just the free babysitting that induced parents to come here with their little children. But it's downhill. It's a pretty steep hill so it's hard to get back up once you've been dropped off, so we can just end up staying in this funky old 19th century library space.

LYDEN: Through good times and bad, and there have been both, the Athenaeum has maintained a stately though on Benefit Street. You could've have once seen from its massive doorways the Providence port, and sailors and perhaps monkeys and oranges on the ships from India. The gray granite facade is austere.

James Hall, executive director of the Providence Preservation Society, is an enthusiastic supporter of the Ath.

JAMES HALL: It's set up as a Greek temple would be on a great plinth so that it has sort of a sense of prominence. There are no windows on the front of this building, really. Even the doors are sort of paneled and foreboding. There is nothing decorative about this. It is, it's meant to say: this is an important building meant to house important things, and that's very much what it does.

LYDEN: Education and self-empowerment were the whole point of the Ath's early founders, says director of programs and public engagement, Christina Bevilacqua.

But keeping a fragile, 19th century library in continuous operation for nearly two centuries has been a challenge. Anyone may browse or catch a program. Members pay an annual fee. There are about a thousand supporting members - a number that is waxing again after having waned.

One hundred and fifty years ago, social libraries like the Athenaeum were all the rage. Today, only a handful remain, such as in Boston and Newport - all were dedicated to the Greek goddess, of course.

CHRISTINA BEVILACQUA: Athena is the goddess of wisdom.

LYDEN: And on the day the library opened in 1838, the citizens of Providence stood willingly for over two hours to listen to an address by one of its founders, the long-winded president of Brown University.

BEVILACQUA: We are speaking of my favorite character in history...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BEVILACQUA: ...Francis Wayland.

WIDMER: Her 19th century boyfriend.

BEVILACQUA: He's my 19th-century boyfriend. We won't go into my taste in men.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ACTOR: (as Francis Wayland) God has scattered the seeds of preeminent ability as profusely among the poor as among the rich...

LYDEN: And speaking through an actor from Trinity Repertory Company, just know this: in 1838, Francis Wayland spoke for over two hours.

Christina Bevilacqua...

BEVILACQUA: He has this kind of philosophy about the need for a library and the need to have equal access to intellectual development because intellectual ability is spread out by God through poor and rich, it doesn't matter.

LYDEN: Providence, which once surpassed Boston in per capita income, invested in its cultural gems - theater companies, museums, arts and music organizations and far more. But keeping these all going in a city of just under 200,000, is a daunting task and with the recession, several nonprofits have gone under.

Rhode Island has gained national attention for its financial problems.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOICES)

LYDEN: On February 3rd, the same day that the city of Providence announced it was nearing bankruptcy, the Atheneaum, which receives no city funds, held its annual fundraising gala. The contract would not have been lost on the night's honoree, the lamented 19th-century Anglo-Irish satirist and wit, Oscar Wilde. Of course, there was a Wilde impersonator.

ACTOR: (as Oscar Wilde) Alas, financial problems can be solved only by finance.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ACTOR: (as Oscar Wilde) Genius, art, romance, passion and the like are useless when the point of issue is one of figures.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: Wilde, then just 26, made a grand tour of America in 1882, to promote the decorative arts and aestheticism, or beauty. He stopped in Providence. Wilde, of course, was known as a dapper, dashing, original dandy.

Oh, here come two now. One of them is the author Tripp Evans. And the other...

ED CABRAL: Hi, my name is Ed Cabral and I work for the Providence Journal and tonight I am wearing Tripp's great-grandfather's top hat that was manufactured in Taunton, Massachusetts.

TRIPP EVANS: I have a swagger stick that belonged to my grandfather and the college ring of my grandmother's fiance, who died before they could be married. I'm the second person to wear this since the '20s.

LYDEN: Tripp gave a talk about his biography of the artist Grant Wood at the Ath last year. These talks - called salons - occurred weekly on Fridays. They're free, begun just six years ago. They've brought in over 80 organizations as speakers, serving as a bridge between the "Ath" and Providence's other cultural institutions, and building audience for all of them.

Last year, the Chilean artist Magaly Ponce gave a salon for the "Hark! The White Whale!" series, devoted to Melville. Ponce had made a whale's skeleton from chemistry bottles and jugs.

MAGALY PONCE: It's all like translucent and very illuminated.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PONCE: But then, the Atheneaum is very supportive group of people. They met the people that were involved in the project. Then, I think it opened up people's imagination to places they haven't been before.

LYDEN: Travel and exploration are a major part of the Providence Atheneaum's collection. Early on, the founders scraped up $500 for "The Description of Egypt," 23 volumes Napoleon commissioned after his 1798 expedition. Draftsmen, printers, architects spent two decades collaborating on these volumes.

Special collections curator Kate Wodehouse describes their beautiful engravings. Taking one down - did you know gloves are no longer used for this sort of work? She lays the books on a foam crate.

KATE WODEHOUSE: See?

LYDEN: Wow.

WODEHOUSE: Isn't that incredible?

LYDEN: Oh, my goodness.

WODEHOUSE: I need another person just to get it off the shelf.

LYDEN: Yeah. Wow.

WODEHOUSE: Why this is so important is because this monumental work was the first glimpse that the rest of the world was really getting of Egypt and it started a craze, not only to travel to Egypt to go there and to see it for themselves, but it also started a craze in terms of the decorative arts with Egypt mania.

LYDEN: Antiquities of the Athenaeum once include an original folio of John James Audubon's "Birds of America." And the Audubons were at the heart of the Ath's worst financial crisis a decade ago. The board made the painful decision to sell the Audubons at Christie's for $5 million in 2005 to stabilize the Athenaeum's endowment. A small contingent sued trying to block the sale of the folio. Membership declined in the years of turbulence.

Kate Wodehouse...

WODEHOUSE: So it was a dark period. And I had people tell me they could feel the heaviness in the air - that it was definitely sort of a depressed environment.

LYDEN: But after see-sawing through the recession, membership has rebounded, so the Ath keeps on educating the generations. An octogenarian scholar on the history of book printing reads the newspaper in a worn leather chair down in the basement.

Devotees of Edgar Allan Poe love the story of his ill-fated romance with a local female poet - and all the Poe memorabilia. Children can use their own library or the 19th century children's books known as "The Old Juveniles." And the Athenaeum tries new ideas, new people, new faces.

KIPP BRADFORD: There are people like me who are not that old-guard cultural elite of Providence.

LYDEN: Kipp Bradford is a lecturer and design engineer at Brown, who is curating three salons this spring.

BRADFORD: Fundamentally, the Athenaeum is about community and creating this discussion and this interaction that you can't have listening to a podcast, and you can't have blogging and Twittering and Facebooking online.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE TALKING AND WALKING)

LYDEN: On a recent quiet Saturday afternoon, the Providence Athenaeum was filling up. Melissa Bobotas, a student at Boston University, was showing the library to her friend, Matthew Parker. He's a student at the Coast Guard Academy.

MELISSA BOBOTAS: My mom used to come here and let me wander around the bookcases. I love seeing this classic literature that I'm studying now in school, versus just looking at when I was younger, didn't understand.

MATTHEW PARKER: Yeah. We hiked a little bit down the road to get here, so...

LYDEN: Really?

PARKER: ...we didn't originally set out to come but then she asked me, hey, you up for an adventure? And I said, always. And a beautiful adventure it's turned out to be.

LYDEN: A beautiful adventure, it has indeed been. The Providence Athenaeum, at the corner of Benefit and College streets, is open seven days a week to the public. Athena is still there, and she welcomes all - don't let those imposing doors fool you.

Jacki Lyden, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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