The meaning of the word Athenæum sheds some light on the role of the Redwood Library and Atheneum in Newport. In colonial Newport, people were busy building, working, doing business and surviving. In 1747, some of the town’s men decided they need to do more; they needed to read and learn new things.
They invoked Athena, the Greek goddess of victory and wisdom, to make a place of knowledge and learning arise on Newport’s hill, on what is now Bellevue Avenue. In 1747, led by Abraham Redwood, they founded the Redwood Library and Athenæum and had the erudite architect Peter Harrison design the building. Harrison’s knowledge of the Temple of Athena at the Acropolis in Greece inspired his design. The Redwood is now the oldest lending library in America, and the oldest library building in continuous use in the country, making it a piece of living history. Even a casual glance will strike an observer as to how similar this Newport temple of learning is to the Greek building that inspired it.
Abraham Redwood and associates raised the money to buy the original collection of 751 titles by creating a public subscription to which the public could contribute and thereby become a member. Redwood remains a “membership library” (open to the public) supported by Proprietors and Subscribers, who pay fees. The collection has grown to more than 160,000 volumes.
The Revolutionary War was devastating for Newport, and a great calamity for the Redwood Library. Over half the volumes vanished from the shelves during its use during the war as a British Officers’ club. But as early as 1806 the Library began advertising for the return of the missing books. Today, nearly 90% of that original collection of titles has been found or replaced.
Muse students recently visited the Redwood, and were shown rare items from the collection by Elaine Bunnell. She brought Nailer Tom’s Diary, a tradesman’s account of post war Newport, out from the vault along with a hand painted illustrated journal by a French explorer.
Check out the short MUSE Film on YouTube and watch for the scenes shot inside the Redwood during a previous MUSE site visit.