What’s the most read serial at the Boston Athenaeum? 

What’s the Most Read Serial at the Boston Athenæum? The Answer May Surprise You.

Is it the New Yorker, that weekly badge of validation for the intelligentsia or Country Life, the glossy pages of which propagate the morbund mythology of the British landed gentry? Perhaps Cook’s Illustrated tops the list with its excruciatingly detailed backstory of every recipe for the Type-A culinary set. 

Before we reveal our findings, we’d like to explain the “why” and “how” of our methodology. The “why” originated with a question that had been plaguing us for some time: namely, do we have too many serial subscriptions? (NB: Library Land broadly defines serials (or periodicals, journals, magazines, etc.) as publications, containing a variety of short works, usually issued at regular intervals, without prior decision as to when the final issue will appear.)  An informal survey of our peer institutions confirmed our suspicions. Our bloated list of subscriptions dwarfed those of some of our counterparts by as many as 200 titles. 

While the answer to our question was a resounding yes, another factor beyond a lengthy subscription list lurked behind the need for reassessment. The Athenæum, like almost every library, faces a daunting space crunch. This is especially apparent every time boxes of bound serials returned from the bindery, the contents of which consume shelf space by the foot. But “how” to address these problems of size and space? We looked to online aggregators such as JSTOR and Project Muse to help solve the space crunch. If back issues of a serial were available online and reasonably current, we might cease to bind it. Through this exercise, we whittled down the titles that we bound. It bears noting that the majority of titles we chose not to bind skewed towards text-heavy publications, whereas those with significant illustrative matter, such as art journals, we continue to bind. 

Cutting down the number of serial subscriptions proved more difficult. How were we to gauge what titles were read and what were ignored? A scan of the professional literature offered no solutions. Soliciting advice from other libraries yielded suggestions that were impractical (have an idle staffer (do they exist?) stalk the serials section for several days, noting which titles were read) or faulty (ask members to place the read serial on a designated table to form a usage calculation, a method that could not account for another member picking up the serial from the special table to peruse the publication).  After some deliberation, Technical and Reader Services came up with the now familiar sheets Athenæum members see stapled to the front of our serials. These little tally sheets ask members to mark a column with an “X” if they read a serial. We have been tabulating data from these sheets for almost four years, affording us the opportunity to make informed decisions regarding subscription renewals and cancellations. (Although, we hasten to add, our decisions are not based exclusively on popularity. In addition to providing recreational reading for our members, our serials also serve as secondary research material for our Special Collections. Therefore, we continue to subscribe to serial publications dedicated to literature, book arts, printing, publishing, and art history, despite a lack of broad readership among our members.)

Our top-ten list of the most read serials at the Boston Athenæum  emerged as an unintentional byproduct of our record-keeping. Which publication tops that list? Quelle surprise! It’s Paris Match! It’s common knowledge that the Athenæum counts a fair number of Anglophiles among its membership, but apparently, the allure of sunbathing royals on the Riviera and socialite intrigue in the “City of Light” brings out the Francophile in many of us. See the entire list below (Excludes daily newspapers).

  1. Paris Match
  2. New Yorker
  3. Country Life
  4. Economist
  5. Times Literary Supplement
  6. Spectator
  7. Cook’s Illustrated
  8. Science
  9. London Review of Books
  10. Boston Business Journal

Boston Globe – At the Athenaeum: Boston on fire then, the Athenaeum renovated now

At the Athenaeum: Boston on fire then, the Athenaeum renovated now

An exhibition looks at the Great Boston Fire of 1872, another shows the library spiffing up

By Mark Feeney Globe Staff, Updated April 12, 2023

Read the full article here.

Over the course of 20 hours on Nov. 9-10, 1872, much of what is now Downtown Crossing and the Financial District burned down. What became known as the Great Boston Fire destroyed 776 buildings, consuming 65 acres of the city’s main commercial district. That area is nearly as large as Boston Common and the Public Garden combined.

“Revisiting the Ruins: The Great Boston Fire of 1872″ looks at the conflagration and its aftermath. The exhibition, which runs through July 29 at the Boston Athenaeum, does double duty. It’s art show as history lesson, it’s history lesson as art show, and quite good at both.

The show’s curator is the Athenaeum’s Christina Michelon.

“Revisiting” comprises some 70 items. They include, as one might expect, photographs, paintings, prints, and a map. There are also 36 stereographs. A stereograph is a pair of very similar photographs which, when viewed through a stereoscope, give an illusion of depth. In a visitor-friendly touch, three viewers are available for use.

“Reviewing” also includes things one might not expect: a key to a building destroyed in the fire, a militia pass allowing the bearer entry to the burnt district, a teenager’s journal, a piece of sheet music, and a “relic” of the fire: a piece of once-melted metal, wrapped in newsprint and string. It’s like a present one might find in Vulcan’s Christmas stocking. Best of all, in an inspired curatorial flourish, the fire alarm in the gallery (a Simplex TrueAlert) gets a wall label. It’s a reminder of the continuity between Boston then and Boston now — and of how far fire prevention has come.

The title “Revisiting the Ruins” has a double meaning. It describes what the show is doing but also what many of the works in the show were doing. Only James Wells Champney’s pencil sketch “Rooftop View of the Great Boston Fire, November 10, 1872″ was made as the fire was occurring. This means the show is as much about the fire’s aftermath as the fire itself. That may seem like an odd distinction today, when news media operate in real time. Back then, technological limitations dictated otherwise.

To give just one example, newspapers and magazines as yet didn’t have the means to reproduce photographs. Rather, an engraving would be made from a photograph, and that’s what readers would see. The show presents both James Wallace Black’s panoramic view of the devastation and an illustration closely derived from it which ran in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

That weekly magazine was based in New York. Coverage of the fire extended as far as England and France. The Nov. 30, 1872, issue of The Illustrated London News ran three engravings of the fire based on Black’s work. Both the photographs and the engravings are on display.

Black’s 13 photographs are the heart of the show. They’re straightforward and unflinching. The urban moonscape they capture looks like nothing so much as a war zone. The presence in the show of a photograph Alexander Gardner had taken seven years earlier of Richmond in ruins underscores the resemblance. Memories of the Civil War must have been in many Bostonians’ minds, as well as an awareness of a more recent event. The Great Chicago Fire had taken place just 13 months before.

Astonishingly, reconstruction was completed within two years (a good part of the rubble was used as landfill in Boston Harbor and to extend Atlantic Avenue). Much of downtown hadn’t been destroyed, of course. The steeple of Old South Meeting House is visible in several photographs. And the fire was contained just two blocks from the Athenaeum.

A very different sort of reconstruction is on display in Tira Khan’s “Reading the Room: Reconstructing the Boston Athenaeum,” which runs through May 13. Khan’s eight photographs are very handsome, with a fullness of color that’s almost tactile.

Her goal was to document the library’s recent renovation. “Patched and Spackled” is not a title one would normally associate with a view of the Athenaeum’s interior, though others, like “Circulation” and “The Paper Room” one would. These photographs, not unlike that fire-alarm wall label in “Revisiting the Ruins,” testify to continuity, in this case institutional.

REVISITING THE RUINS: The Great Boston Fire of 1872

READING THE ROOM: Reconstructing the Boston Athenaeum

At: Boston Athenaeum, 10½ Beacon St., through July 29 and May 13, respectively. 617-227-0270, bostonathenaeum.org


WBUR Radio Boston: New exhibit will examine the lasting legacy of the Great Boston Fire of 1872

A new exhibit opening on April 7 at the Boston Athenæum explores the impact of the Great Boston Fire of 1872. The blaze burned for 12 hours, burning down nearly 800 buildings and causing billions of dollars in damage in today’s figures.

Boston historian and author Anthony Sammarco and Christina Michelon, associate curator of special collections at the Boston Athenæum joined us to talk about the fire and the exhibit called “Revisiting the Ruins: The Great Boston Fire of 1872”

You can listen to the interview and read the transcript here.


Most Circulated Books 2022

What were you reading last year? What books got checked out again and again? We took a look at our records and tallied the books that were most often checked out in 2022. When we went to photograph the stack, we found that four were checked out, proving the popularity lingers into 2023. Here’s the list of the top 10 most popular books from last year:

Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles


Foster by Claire Keegan


Give Unto Others by Donna Leon


The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray


Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead


Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout


Adventures of Tintin by Herge


The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley


Crying in H Mart: A Memoir by Michelle Zauner


A Dream Life by Claire Messud



Boston Festival Orchestra and Boston Athenæum to Offer  Unique Chamber Music Series

Boston Festival Orchestra and Boston Athenæum to Offer  Unique Chamber Music Series

Boston (January 19, 2023) – Deep in the pandemic, when the concert halls were shuttered, the Boston Festival Orchestra now and then used the Boston Athenæum as a practice space, and their music filled the building.  A friendship began, and from that, an artistic collaboration. 

Now, in an innovative multidisciplinary artistic collaboration, the Boston Festival Orchestra (BFO) and the Boston Athenæum have formed a partnership to reflect on special Athenæum exhibitions through the lens of chamber music.

With three 2023 chamber music concerts in the intimate setting of the Athenæum’s Henry Long Room, the BFO will perform compelling and relevant repertoire that blends the familiar with the unknown, according to BFO conductor Alyssa Wang. “The concerts will span many time periods, cultures and mediums, prodding us to ask questions such as: Who is art for? In what ways can we use art to connect with our heritage? In what ways can we use art to reconcile with the past?” she said.

 Each chamber music concert will reflect on a specific Athenæum exhibition:

  • February 9Materialia Lumina, the BFO pairs new and old works of classical music with stunning selections of artists’ books showcased in the Athenæum’s current gallery exhibition, Materialia Lumina / Luminous Books.  
  • April 8 – Performing previously hidden and game-changing voices in classical music, the BFO reflects on the ramifications of an exclusionary past and reconsiders the constructs of race, gender, and class. The music is inspired by Re-Reading Special Collections, a new Athenæum initiative to reinterpret and recontextualize works of art from its permanent collection. 
  • June 22A Place I Never Knew explores a series of photographs by local photographer Tira Khan., The BFO will use music to reflect bridges among Khan’s Indian, American, British heritages. 

Departing from tradition, the concerts will include opportunities for audience participation. Concert-goers will be able to walk through the featured exhibits and converse with artists during the receptions following the concerts. 

“For many audience members, these events may serve as the first introduction to the Boston Athenæum or the Boston Festival Orchestra,” said Boston Athenæum director Leah Rosovsky. “We hope that by mixing communities we strengthen the entire arts and culture community of Greater Boston.”

Concert Schedule

All three concerts are in the Henry Long Room at the Athenæum, 10 ½ Beacon St., Boston.

  • Thursday February 9 at 6 p.m.
  • Saturday April 8 at 3 p.m.
  • Thursday June 22 at 6 p.m.

The concerts are free to BFO subscribers, Athenæum members and the general public, but registration is required at: bostonathenaeum.org/events


Boston Athenæum Adds Rare Painting by Robert S. Duncanson to its Collections

Boston Athenæum Adds Rare Painting by Robert S. Duncanson to its Collections

On View Now, Alongside Duncanson on Loan from MFA

Boston, MA — (December 20, 2022) — The Boston Athenæum is pleased to announce that it has acquired a rare painting by the acclaimed nineteenth-century artist Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872). Boatman Delivering Goods on the South Fork, Shenandoah River, Virginia, 1850s is the first work by Duncanson to enter the Athenæum’s Special Collections in the institution’s 215-year history.

Duncanson, who was born in upstate New York in 1821 to free Black parents, was a leading American landscape painter in the years before and after the American Civil War until his death in 1872 from dementia. He received international acclaim for his dynamic compositions and use of color; both characteristics are apparent in Boatman Delivering Goods, a Virginia landscape from the 1850s. At great risk to his personal safety and freedom as a Black man, Duncanson traveled throughout the South before the Civil War. Recent research has revealed the extent of these travels—through Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. Boatman Delivering Goods is an excellent example of Duncanson’s mature style and his sensitive depiction of southern landscapes. 

In Boatman Delivering Goods, Duncanson portrays a solitary boatman at the center of the painting. The boatman propels himself along the Shenandoah, his oars drawn back with inertia and poised to emerge from the water. The boatman is possibly transporting pig iron—a crude iron refined to create wrought iron and steel—produced by the blast furnaces throughout the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Research on the painting is ongoing.

“Robert Duncanson is an artist of long-standing interest to the Boston Athenæum,” said consulting art historian and former Athenaeum Assistant Curator Virginia Reynolds Badgett, PhD. “A painting by Duncanson was posthumously exhibited at the Athenæum in 1874. We are thrilled to add a stunning example of his work to our collections.” 

Boatman Delivering Goods is on view in the Long Room and is interpreted together with materials from the Athenæum’s extensive Special Collections.  It is hung alongside a Duncanson painting on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. 

“It is wonderful to see these two Duncanson landscapes displayed together at the Athenaeum, one depicting the south and the other the north, each of them celebrating nature and alluding to industry at a critical moment in American history,” said Erica Hirshler, MFA’s Croll Senior Curator of American Paintings. “Both paintings demonstrate the artist’s talent and his critical role in our national story.”

The Boston Athenaeum has just completed a renovation and expansion of its landmark building in downtown Boston, creating new spaces to showcase its collection in addition to providing more places for reading, working and cultural events. “This is a tremendously exciting time for us,” said Athenaeum director Leah Rosovsky. “In addition to our revitalization project, we have also re-envisioned how our collection is presented and interpreted to reflect a more expansive view of American art and history. The Robert Duncanson painting is an important reflection of that process.”