I recently celebrated the end of the summer with a somewhat impulsive trip to Providence, Rhode Island. As a native Coloradan, my landlocked background thoroughly equipped me to enjoy the fresh seafood, ferry rides, lighthouse viewing, and all the other trappings of coastal tourism. As an MLS student, I am always interested in visiting libraries when I travel, and in researching my trip, I prioritized paying a visit to the Providence Athenæum. The Athenæum is well-known for its Greek-style architecture, mezzanine interior, and historical ties to H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. I was particularly drawn to the apocryphal accounts of Poe’s defacement of library property, as well as his brutal break-up with Sarah Helen Whitman, both of which allegedly occurred there.
Approaching the Athenæum is in itself an awe-inspiring experience. A large stone fountain graces the bottom of its outdoor stairwell and imposing Doric columns guard its entrance. Upon entry, one is suddenly sorted via stanchion either as a member or a guest of the library. Guests must proceed to the left into a corner office, where a librarian hands them an Athena-headed sticker intended to designate their status and offers them self-guided tour information.
One of the main draws of the building is its unique interior, which features a balcony-style level surrounding the upper shelves of the main floor. Reading desks and chairs form cubbies between these shelves, and skylights bring in direct natural light from above.
Having seen the pictures in advance, my first inclination was to make my ascent to the second floor and browse the collections by window-light. As I’d spent the beginning of the day on foot working my way through the city, the idea of ending my excursion with a good book in one of the romantic reading cubbies sounded fairly magical. However, following each corner that I rounded, I found that the desks I’d pictured myself sitting at were all reserved for paying members only.
As I continued to explore the building, I did find open seating in the basement level where the special collections and artwork are located. However, being that most of the items I was interested in viewing were actually on the balcony levels and I had already been out and about most of my day, my visit ended up being short-lived and I exited the Athenæum a mere 20 minutes after entering it.
Out of curiosity after the fact, I decided to look up the membership benefits offered by the private library. While I had noted ahead of time that the Athenæum is an independent, member-supported library, I’d assumed the main perk of membership (and exclusion to guests) was the ability to check out materials. The website offers a long list of perks, though, including borrowing privileges, priority access to collections, complimentary chamber music concert tickets, and more. The seating arrangement is not mentioned as far as I could tell.
Now, I consider myself to be a relatively able-bodied young person who requires very little accommodation as far as accessibility is concerned. However, even I had been discouraged from my visit by the lack of seating after a long day of walking. I had to wonder, particularly since the seating situation isn’t mentioned on the website, if differently abled patrons might have a limited and/or disappointing visit to the Athenæum due to the lack of seating options on the upper floors.
This further elicits the question of just what kind of paid benefits are appropriate for a library? When does a perk become discriminatory? While this may seem to be an issue exclusive to private libraries, public institutions often offer benefits to their paying members as well via programs such as Friends of the Library, and thus the question is worth considering in those contexts as well.
I found the membership benefits listed on the Athenæum’s website to be completely reasonable, and certainly attractive to those who may visit the institution frequently. Are the additional seating benefits really necessary then? Because if one isn’t able to actually sit and admire the collection upon their initial visit, it seems to me that such a “benefit” may act as more of a deterrent than a draw.
I’m so curious to hear your opinions on the matter. Do you think member-exclusive seating is a reasonable benefit to paid programs in libraries? Are there other membership perks you’ve noticed in libraries that seem unreasonable? Or on a more positive note, are there membership programs you’ve seen implemented especially well? Let me know what you think in the comments!
Delanie Rio is currently pursuing her Masters of Library Science through Emporia State University. She received her undergraduate degree in liberal arts with a minor in legal studies from Colorado State University in 2016, and has worked as a paralegal, a government administrator, and a transcriptionist in the years since. Her academic interests include older adult/nontraditional students, distance learning, information literacy, and self-led education. After completing her MLS, she hopes to pursue academic librarianship and/or archival work. She currently resides in her home state of Colorado with her dog, Luka, and bunny, Ollie, and enjoys camping, painting, and writing when she’s not curled up with a good book.