The Boston Athenæum and the London Library business correspondence

In 1913 the London Library was hired by the Boston Athenæum to create book lists and help select popular English novels that could not be purchased in the United States. This relationship is documented in our archive of letters (Boston Athenæum’s carbon copies and London Library originals).  This relationship lasted over three decades and through two World Wars.

In January 1913 Charles Knowles Bolton, the Boston Athenæum’s Librarian and Director, wrote to Sir Charles Theodore Hagberg Wright, the Secretary and Librarian at the London Library, inquiring about hiring them to obtain books by English authors. The following two letters describe the beginnings of this relationship. Wright suggests that his assistant Charles Purnell act as agent. Bolton describes the sort of books the Athenæum members like to read and so begins this relationship.

Wright to Bolton January 24, 1913
Bolton to Wright, page 1 of 2, February 8, 1913
Bolton to Wright, page 2 of 2, February 8, 1913

The letters describe some of the challenges faced by librarians during the World Wars. World War I was unlike anything one could have imagined.  War disrupted the normal flow of books from England and Europe to the United States.  The business correspondence between these two libraries reveal an institutional friendship whose scope extends beyond the realm of books. In the following two letters Bolton and Purnell mention censors reading correspondence, the USA entering the War, the recent advance made by the Austro-Hungarians in Italy, and, one of Purnell’s catalogers who suffered greatly but is rewarded.

Bolton to Purnell, April 12, 1917
Purnell to Bolton, page 1 of 2, October 31, 1917
Purnell to Bolton, page 2 of 2, October 31, 1917

Time passes and countries regain strength, publishing houses recover or open up, writing styles change, and books are bought and transported across the ocean again. During this time Charles Knowles Bolton retires and Sir Charles Theodore Hagberg Wright dies. Miss Elinor Gregory (later Mrs. Metcalf) becomes the Librarian in 1937 and continues the correspondence with Charles Purnell.  WWII begins and the two librarians are steadfast about book purchases among the devastation that surrounds London.  The following three letters describe Purnell’s environment: ruin down the street from the library and damage inside the library. Miss Gregory numbers the letters she sends for fear of lost letters, business continues, and Boston prepares for war.​

Purnell to Gregory, April 19, 1941
Purnell to Gregory, May 12, 1941
Gregory to Purnell, June 10, 1941

The United States joins the war and members of the Boston Athenæum staff (men and women) sign up and head to Europe. More war preparations are made at home and abroad. Fighting continues. The two libraries carry on with corresponding and ship books across the ocean with uncertain destiny. Eventually, the war ends. Here are two letters that mark victory, hope and, of course, the continuation of book business (with a side of grape jelly).

Purnell to Metcalf, page 1 of 2, May 15, 1945
Purnell to Metcalf, page 2 of 2, May 15, 1945
Metcalf to Purnell, August 14, 1945

These surviving letters tell a remarkable story of global cooperation and resilience in the face of great challenge. The news from London was shared with all the staff at the time and with our members within the pages of Annual Reports. News of London and Boston, general library news, and personal updates (children, weddings, vacations, etc.) are shared and the bounds between both libraries grew stronger with every letter.

One can read more about the Boston Athenæum and London Library relationship in our Annual Reports online and by making a Special Collections appointment. For more information about The London Library, please visit their website

Letters are from:
B.A. 5 .10
Librarian’s records
Boston Athenæum letters received
Boston Athenæum letters out
Boston Athenæum letter files