Tom Hardiman, Keeper and Executive Director
2021 was a strange and confounding year. We had a number of great successes and a maddening number of losses and setbacks. We got the library fully reopened regular hours and brought back live exhibits in the Randall Gallery. We had a fantastic summer picnic and three lovely fall concerts. We had just started in person author events when the tide seemed to turn back on itself.
Thanks to your generosity and to the sound management of Jeff Keefe and Stephanie Tabit, the Athenaeum is in the strongest financial condition in its history. Brad & Sally have provided steady leadership and, with our new Governance Committee headed by Maryellen Burke, have built a secure institutional foundation on which we hope to build a better future. Our staff, Robin, Carolyn, James, Katy, and our volunteer curator Elizabeth Aykroyd, have our collections and catalog in the best shape it has ever been. And Phil Carling of Biblioboxes .com has been making meticulous archival enclosures for our rare books.
In December we celebrated the life of Dick Winslow, the acclaimed seacoast historian and author. For all of us present it felt like the passing of an era. When I started here Dick would leave his post at the Public Library at 5 every Tuesday and come to the Athenaeum in his signature grey suit and broad smile, bearing a bottle of red wine or port. Here he would meet Robert Dunn, who had bought his Tuesday baguette from Ceres Bakery and the two would sit in the old library room and share a glass and a crust of bread and deep conversation – never idle chit-chat, but Melville, Thoreau, Rousseau, or Descartes. It was what the Athenaeum was meant for: the academic and the poet custodian sharing company and ideas, and anyone who passed through was welcome to join in. Let’s hope we have not lost that.
The greatest challenge came last month, when I was told we were being evicted from our offsite library storage space and I would have 60 days (now just over two weeks) to relocate 42 steel shelving units, nearly 500 boxes of books, and thousands of old newspapers. At the moment, this is a catastrophe, but without the benefit of history, it is hard to tell if these great challenges are existential disasters or pathways to a better future.
Was Thomas Jefferson the philosophical genius who drafted the Declaration of Independence or was he a despicable slave owner who abused and molested a young girl who he claimed to own as property? Did his embargo save American independence and industry or provoke a needlessly avoidable war? Two centuries of historical analysis has still not adequately answered these questions. In December of 1802, when fire destroyed everything between the State House in Market Square and the Moffatt-Ladd house, the New Hampshire Gazette reported: “The whole beauty of the town is gone! is gone!!!” What was rebuilt from the ashes, including our magnificent building at 9 Market Square, now defines the very beauty and appeal of Portsmouth.
We don’t yet have the perspective to judge where we are today, so the best we can do is plan and prepare. As mentioned at the very beginning of my remarks, generosity and prudent fiscal management have put us in an incredibly strong position to make our dreams of our future come true; we just need to build consensus on what that dream should be. That is the role of good governance and why these organizational changes are so important.
The day after Dick Winslow’s memorial, I was in the Research Library helping a scholar trying to find print sources for the illustrations in a rare children’s book on animals printed in Portsmouth in 1805. I suggested that we look at the work of Thomas Bewick, the preeminent British wood engraver of the period. In reviewing Bewick’s work, I came across one engraving that stunned me. It was an illustration for William Somerville’s popular narrative poem, The Chase, which celebrates the now illegal sport of deer stalking with dogs and delves into gory detail about the death of the stag. Bewick’s illustration shows the exact opposite: the hunter’s grand mansion is in ruins, reclaimed by nature, and the noble stag is peacefully drinking from a spring pool in what was once the hunter’s dining room.
What struck me was not just the implicit message of humility, that the grandest of mansions, like my memories of Dick and Robert, will all someday succumb to nature’s plan, but the motto carved in stone on the overmantle of the ruined chimney: “Book II.” Whatever tragedy befell the scene was over and a fresh start was beginning. For our Athenaeum, I loved book one – I laughed; I cried; recommended it to my friends. Now we are at the frontispiece of book two: anything is possible. It can be however we imagine it, just as Bewick was able to imagine his own sequel to Somerville’s Chase. If we write it together, I promise that book two will be the best part of our story. Let’s get busy.