By Tom Hardiman, Keeper and Executive Director
Over the past couple of weeks, Proprietor Ellen Fineberg and I gave tours of the 1805 building to twenty groups of Portsmouth 3rd graders. Telling the kids about our history is always fun, rewarding, and exhausting! I started each group with: “Good morning and welcome to the Portsmouth Athenaeum. Who knows what an Athenaeum is?” I was pleased that at least one student in each group knew that an Athenaeum is a library and a few even knew that Athena was the goddess of wisdom.
I also got more than a few comments like: “it is a secret library for rich people;” or “it’s like a private club.” I replied that if this was a private club for rich people, we would have to start raising our prices. Then I tried to explain what a membership library is, and that, as envisioned by Benjamin Franklin in 1731, membership libraries were designed to democratize learning by pooling money to buy a wealth of books for members like himself who were not wealthy. A membership library is indeed elite because its supporters are a self-selecting group of people eager to learn and share, but it is not elitist. [Our membership dues only cover about 20% of our operations.]
It took a bit of mental acrobatics to figure out how to get that across to 3rd graders, but by the 20th group I think I had it by deleting dates and not trying to explain tontine corporations. At least I had it easier than Ellen who got asked: “have you ever tried to cut your fingers off with the model guillotine?” Somehow, “no,” just doesn’t answer that one adequately.
June has been blooming at the Athenaeum not just with 3rd graders, but we had a marvelous Art ‘Round Town first Friday hosted by Sherry Wood, Allen McGee, and Linda Cheatham. No one left under informed or underfed. Next week we are mixing it up with another fascinating history of science talk with Fred Schubert on the 15th; then we have Wentworth family history talks with Sandra Rux on the 21st and John Rule on the 24th. On the 25th we have another great program with Elizabeth Howard of the Short Fuse podcast interviewing author Charles Doane. The Board of Directors is carefully crafting new Vision, Mission, and Values statements and a list of short and long-term goals to be presented for open discussion this summer. For a “secret library,” we have a lot going on.
[Photo by Tom Hardiman]