On a Thursday in January, in a dreary basement room of the Boston Public Library, Bernard Margolis and Richard Wendorf came together for a jovial "debate." There was much posturing. The moderator made good-natured quips about the possibility of having to restrain these two placid looking men, each tucked respectably into a suit. The audience, mostly older women and older men in bow ties, roared in appreciation.
Settling into leather armchairs, Messrs. Margolis and Wendorf set about answering the question "Should the Boston Athenaeum have become the Boston Public Library?"
It was an academic exercise, a query set in the past tense. The Athenaeum, a private library, didn't become the city's public library when it was proposed 150 years ago; today, there's no risk of it being subsumed by its better-known progeny. Yet membership libraries such as the Boston Athenaeum, where book lovers pay a modest annual fee to curl up in a literary sanctum, have long been overshadowed by their public counterparts.
These charming throwbacks to earlier centuries have clung to their roots, with refined, clubby atmospheres. But the low profile that can accompany a members-only institution can also make for a recognition problem. "What's really important for us is that we not be hidden in plain sight," says Richard Wendorf, the director of the Boston Athenaeum.
Membership libraries in the US were originally modeled after the athenaeums and lyceums of England, which increased access to books at a time when most collections were private. By 1876, more than 3,000 dotted the country.
Today, "they're one of the missed sets of cultural treasures," says Diantha Schull, president of the Americans for Libraries Council in New York. But these private libraries can still be found clustered in the Northeast and throughout the South. The youngest, founded in 1899, is the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library in La Jolla, Calif., which costs $40 per year.
The Boston Athenaeum, dating back to 1807, is the country's largest such institution, with 600,000 volumes (in addition to more than 500 pieces of art) and 5,000 members. Stepping through its red leather doors at 10-1/2 Beacon Street is a little like falling down Alice's rabbit hole. Within the 12-story structure, now in the throes of its 200th birthday party, lies an elegant hodgepodge – part library, part museum, part gallery. There is little delineation between where one part leaves off and the next begins: Paintings hang in every room, busts are nestled between bookshelves, and the books themselves – colorful, leatherbound – are works of art.
Just beyond the circulation desk, a gold plaque reads "Here remains a retreat for those who would enjoy the humanity of books."
For sheer magnitude, no library in this city could dream of topping the Boston Public Library. The country's first public library, founded in 1848, it houses a collection of 6.1 million books. More than 2.2 million patrons pass through each year. It is subsidized by taxpayers and free to all.
By contrast, a regular Athenaeum family membership is $275. In an effort to draw new, younger members into the fold, associate members – those under the age of 41 – join for $110. But the benefits are ample: access to books, lectures, teas, and ambiance in abundance.
And the personal attention at these libraries can be nothing short of doting. On the way to the children's library overlooking the Granary Burying Ground, a cemetery behind the building, Mr. Wendorf, wearing French cuffs, pauses to shake hands with a member. For the cost of postage, the Athenaeum will mail books to members anywhere in the world.
At the Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport, R.I., ($70 per year), the country's oldest lending library, founded in 1747, it's not unusual for a librarian to call a member and offer to hold a new book that might be of interest. "We make a point to smile and greet people when they come in, to know what their preferences are," says executive director Cheryl Helms.
In describing the Redwood – a stunning example of Palladian architecture and historic landmark where a clock from 1728 chimes the hour and quarter-hour – Ms. Helms likes to say, "If you want to see a 1488 first edition Euclid's Geometry, it's in our collection. If you want to read Jacqueline Susann ["Valley of the Dolls"], that's in our collection, too."
The Boston Athenaeum also offers a wide range of reading material. Fanned over two long mahogany tables in the reading room, where light floods through tall windows and green-shaded table lamps cast a warm glow over the selections, are copies of The Wall Street Journal; one of the city's alternative weeklies, the Boston Phoenix; Fortune; and Vogue.
Of course with any library it's mainly about the books. But readers tend to frequent membership libraries for their other qualities. Robert Holzbach, a financial planner in Winthrop, Mass., who has been an associate member for five years, relishes the Boston Athenaeum's aesthetic.
"I can get quantity elsewhere," he says, reflecting on the children's library, where he likes to bring his daughters. "The quality is a bit better. The big difference, though, is it's just amazingly beautiful looking over the graveyard there. I was with my little girls over Christmas, and it started to snow."