Shared from the 3/25/2018 The Providence Journal eEdition

Back to the future

Redwood Library and Athenaeum, which opened in 1750, is navigating its way in a digital age


The Redwood Library and Athenaeum, on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, is the oldest continuous lending library in the United States. Its original room remains intact, with the same floors and walls that architect Peter Harrison designed 270 years ago. [THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL PHOTOS / BOB BREIDENBACH]


Benedict Leca, who arrived three years ago as executive director, stands in the library’s Terry Reading Room.




A bust of Capt. Charles Hunter in a window at the Redwood Library and Athenaeum. [THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL PHOTOS / BOB BREIDENBACH]


The Harrison Room was the original library and houses much of Redwood’s special collections, with books dating to the early 1700s. Some of the portraits lining the walls are by Rhode Island artist Gilbert Stuart.


Over nearly three centuries The Redwood’s collection has grown to more than 200,000 titles.


A plaque in the Harrison Room lists the dates and architects for different rooms of the library.

NEWPORT — Walking through the main entrance of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum is like taking a stroll back in time — and into the future — simultaneously.

Eighteenth- and 19th-century paintings, sculpture and furniture are interspersed with modern-day books, magazines and newspapers, while a computer terminal helps guide visitors to a rich history of Newport, with manuscripts and artifacts just steps away.

In a city where the word “oldest” greets visitors at nearly every turn, The Redwood, which was chartered in 1747 and opened three years later, stands out. It is the oldest continuous lending library in the United States. Perhaps more impressive: its original room remains intact — in the same location on Bellevue Avenue, with the same floors and walls that architect Peter Harrison designed 270 years ago. Many of the books that were part of the original collection fill the shelves.

The Redwood was one of the first buildings in the country to be awarded National Historic Landmark status by Congress in 1962. Despite that, the library has flown largely under the public’s radar for years.

“My first thought was: How did I not know about this before?” said Patrick Crowley, who came from Pennsylvania last summer to be The Redwood’s special collections librarian. “This is a really amazing piece of American history and American intellectual history, and American library history. And I had never heard of it.”

Benedict Leca arrived as executive director three years ago. “It’s a neat thing to revitalize the oldest library in a way that is completely true to its mission and yet is absolutely in step with the latest developments in museums and libraries,” he said.

Like every library, The Redwood is navigating its way in a digital age, so Leca recently secured a grant that will enable the building to expand its broadband access and improve security, allowing it to attract art exhibits from around the world.

“We know now that libraries themselves are evolving,” Leca said. “It’s data terminals, it’s information being given across a multitude of platforms for all sorts of different types of users — be it rare books, magazines, the internet, the Cloud, music streaming.”

But Leca added that it was the “athenaeum” part that initially attracted him and has helped bring in an increasing number of visitors through programs, exhibits, lectures and concerts. Simply defined, an athenaeum is a place for literary or scientific study.

The Redwood is a membership library: it receives no taxpayer funds, relying on the subscriptions of its 2,000 members, foundation grants and contributions from individuals. Holders of any Rhode Island library card and students with an ID can visit for free. All other visitors are $10. A basic membership, which gives patrons access to library services, is $75 annually; $100 entitles subscribers to attend many events at no additional charge.

“People seem to think we’re a public library, because the idea of a membership library is unknown to 99 percent of the public,” said Carolyn du Pont, the library’s director of development and programs. “The whole concept of charging people to come in? Why, this is a library? Well, we are a library, but even more than that we are an extraordinary museum. We are a repository of the most extraordinary collection of important documents and art objects.”

All of The Redwood’s events are open to the public. The library charges for some, but not all, for those who don’t have a membership. A gallery adjacent to one of the main rooms hosts rotating exhibits.

“I try to make anybody and everybody who lives on this island or visits this island feel that there is something here for them and that they are most welcome to be here,” du Pont said.

The Redwood has dramatically increased the number of events every year, holding weekly gatherings in the spring and fall and a dozen special events over the summer, including a gala on the grounds surrounding the building. The programs are as varied as authors debuting their books and a scientist talking about oceanography, to a neurologist giving a lecture about autism or Alzheimer’s research, and a presentation last year by three engineers who had worked on building the Newport Bridge, which included the widow of the man who designed it. On a recent Sunday, nationally known pianist Virginia Eskin performed for an audience of several dozen.

“What started out to be something to make our members feel their membership more worthwhile, has now become a wonderful way of bringing in people who have never been in The Redwood Library before, to see what an incredibly beautiful space it is,” du Pont said, adding that at first she struggled to find authors to come speak to modest audiences. Now, publicists seek her out and programs often draw 90 people, the capacity of its main room.

The Redwood’s history itself is unique. It is named for Abraham Redwood, a Quaker and one of Newport’s richest men in the mid-1700s, whose contribution helped found the library.

In the late 1740s, the 48 founders represented every political and religious affiliation at the time; five of the founding members were Jewish.

“Religious cooperation of the Colonies was born in this building,” du Pont said. “It was an inclusiveness that had not ever been seen or heard before in the Colonies. Most people, if they were Quakers, they socialized with Quakers and did business with Quakers. It’s one of the first places in the country where intellectual exchange was encouraged.”

The library began with a collection of 750 books, including a copy of the Koran purchased in 1748, during a time when it was too expensive for most people to have a personal collection. Over nearly three centuries The Redwood’s collection has grown to more than 200,000 titles.

In 1833, less than a century after its founding, the directors added “athenaeum” to the title, a word that confuses many people today. “In essence it is a space, an environment that encourages intellectual exchange, experimentation, debate, education. Anything that broadens the mind,” du Pont said. “The library made the decision to become something more than a repository for books, to become a place where that kind of intellectual activity not only could take place but was encouraged and fostered and nurtured.”

Leca says at a time when the internet can bring information to anyone, anywhere at any time, The Redwood remains attractive to those looking for both old and new.

“This idea that the old must be in opposition to the new is a false one,” he said. “Because this place in many ways was always new. It was new when they planted it here in 1747. The idea of an athenaeum was new in 1833 … and today is new, it’s cutting-edge.”

Just as some people are abandoning their Kindles and iPads for books, Leca says going online is no substitute for a visit.

“Contrary to what you might imagine [people saying]: ‘Well I don’t need to go to The Redwood Library I can just get online and do the virtual tour.’ This idea that when things are photographed or can be seen online it dissuades people from coming, exactly the opposite. They want to see it.”

The Rhode Island Spotlight is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that relies, in part, on donations. For more information, go to Reach Jim Hummel at Jim@

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