Piscataqua Savings Bank is the proud supporter of over 130 Seacoast area nonprofits. We’re highlighting a few of the nonprofits doing incredible, critical work in our Seacoast community with our Seacoast Spotlight Series. Next up in our spotlight is the Portsmouth Athenaeum, a nonprofit membership library, gallery, and archive in the heart of historic Downtown Portsmouth. 

The Portsmouth Athenaeum, a membership library, serves as a cornerstone educational research center and local resource for the Seacoast region. As an informational hub for the community, it extends a warm welcome to all who seek knowledge, inviting them to explore, learn, experience culture, and delve into the rich history of the Piscataqua area. 

Upholding a long tradition of community enrichment and enhancement, the Portsmouth Athenaeum boasts a vast library of over 40,000 volumes and an extensive archive teeming with manuscripts, photographs, objects, and memorabilia dedicated to local history. In addition to preserving the region’s heritage, the Athenaeum proudly sponsors exhibitions, concerts, lectures and other educational and cultural events, furthering its mission to aid the Seacoast.  

A History of the Portsmouth Athenaeum 

The term “Athenæum” itself carries profound significance, harking back to Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. Just as Athena embodied knowledge and enlightenment, the Athenaeum aspires to elevate the minds of its members, guiding them through the canals of history and the corridors of culture.

Founded upon the principles of mutual improvement, the Portsmouth Athenaeum traces its roots back to the 18th century when membership libraries were flourishing across America. These libraries weren’t just collections of books, but were hubs of intellectual exchange, fostering a sense of community and elevating the educational resources available within them. In 1817, a corporation was formed in Portsmouth based on these principles under the name Portsmouth Athenaeum with the hopes of someday establishing a library for their archives. 

Constructed in 1805, the building that the Athenaeum occupies today was originally home to the office for the New Hampshire Fire & Marine Insurance Company until their closure. In 1824, the Portsmouth Athenaeum acquired the space, expanding and renovating to accommodate their already extensive collection. Over the years, the institution has preserved certain 19th-century customs, such as referring to members as proprietors and directors as keepers, and embodying a significant piece of history within the Portsmouth community. 

Despite the dwindling numbers of membership libraries across the nation, the Portsmouth Athenaeum stands strong, steadfast in its commitment to preserving history and guiding the way for future enlightenment. 

Join the Portsmouth Athenaeum

The Athenaeum warmly welcomes members, whose annual dues play a crucial role in maintaining and ensuring access to their collections. The membership, spanning nineteen states and two countries, is offered in three tiers – Friends, Subscribers, and Proprietors. Each level offers unique privileges tailored to enrich the Athenaeum experience. 

  • Friends enjoy perks such as free admission to lecture series, invitations to all Athenaeum public events and the annual picnic, and a complementary newsletter subscription.
  • Subscribers receive all of the above, gain access to special events, have full library and Reading Room privileges during daytime hours, and may check out books. 
  • Proprietors, who have steered the Athenaeum’s course since 1817, enjoy the above perks, extended library hours, voting rights at annual meetings, and potential board involvement. 

Support the Portsmouth Athenaeum

Beyond membership, the Athenaeum welcomes approximately 700 annual visitors from around the globe, alongside over 2,000 attendees at exhibitions, lectures, and concerts. As a nonprofit institution, they play a pivotal role in the community, offering their historic building as a meeting space and conducting outreach programs to foster collaboration and engagement among educators, scholars, and the public.

Curious about lending a hand? The Portsmouth Athenaeum thrives on memberships, donations, and volunteer contributions. Together, we may find meaning in the past to illuminate both the present and the future.

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