Books Through Time: "Reimagining a Colonial Library" at the Boston Athenaeum

By Jessica A. Kent
September 19, 2019

Thomas Bray had a literary vision.

Appointed commissary to Anglican churches in the newly-settled Colonies, the Reverend first devised a network of forty library locations scattered along the East Coast, then curated a collection of books that he deemed “necessary and useful” to send to each of them. Supported by funds he raised, Bray handpicked his selections for each Colonial library, and shipped them to their destinations.

In 1698, a collection of 221 books set sail from England to Boston. The books were stamped with the name of the King on the front and the words “DE BIBLIOTECA DE BOSTON” on the back, and were housed in King’s Chapel as their library of “necessary works.” As the American Revolution raged around the church, the books were stored away as the clergy, loyal to the King, fled. Unlike other libraries, this collection survived unscathed and unplundered. They eventually found their way to the Boston Theological Library in 1807, housed at First Church, and in 1823 were presented to the Boston Athenaeum. Since 1911 they have been kept in a specially made cabinet on the third floor.

It’s these very books, shipped from England before the United States even existed, hidden from the ravages of the Revolutionary War, that are on display in the Athenaeum’s new exhibit “Required Reading: Reimagining a Colonial Library,” which opened Tuesday, September 17.

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The collection includes mostly books for the Church, appropriately: “Theological tomes, aids to the study of Scripture, tracts of doctrinal controversy” and more. One of the books on display is the London Polyglott, a nine-language edition of the Bible, with text running side-by-side. It’s accompanied by a concordance of every word in the Bible. But there are also volumes of history, geography, and mathematics in the collection, and even a 1693 atlas on display (with California as an island and the Northwest unmapped) to give a natural understanding of the world alongside the spiritual. The works themselves are in beautiful, sharp condition, and you can’t help but think about Bray holding them in his hands before sending them on their journey.

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But the exhibition is as much about showcasing selections from this collection as it is about telling the story of the books, and as I walked through I was borne along by the Athenaeum team’s storytelling. The exhibition’s descriptive text on wall placards and shelf-talkers, forces the visitor to think more deeply about the story of these books. One empty wall of the room, filled only with text, asks:

What is Essential Knowledge?
The King’s Chapel Library.
One man’s idea of ‘All Necessary and Useful Knowledge.’
What lessons does this 17th-century collection hold for us now?
What do you consider Required Reading?

And that’s the point at which the exhibition transcends display and turns into engagement. I went from a passive viewer to a reader, engaging with the open texts in front of me, but also engaging with the questions the placards posed. Thomas Bray was a literary pioneer who raised funds to start libraries in the Colonies, and spent considerable time and effort selecting the 221 volumes. But while he tried to choose books that presented different sides of theologies and philosophies, there were books that he didn’t include because of his own preference.

It goes back to the question on the wall of the exhibit: This is one man’s idea of required reading. Can we trust one person to decide a reading list, especially the reading list for the launch of a new country? Does it tell the full story of the 17th century? Or are there other voices that could and should be folded into the collection to give it more breadth and depth? In what ways are we allowing one person’s opinion on culture to affect us? Or are we deliberately seeking out the whole story? Of the collection, John Buchtel, the Athenaeum’s Curator of Rare Books and Head of Special Collections, says “their appeal is not simply as a time capsule or as examples of the craft of bookbinding, but also as a profound prompt, giving us the opportunity to imagine the readings we’d select as essential in our own lives.”

This is where the Athenaeum brings the exhibition into the 21st century. They reached out to local organizations to ask them what their required reading would be, and have those books – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, The Diary of Anne Frank, Silent Spring, Dancer from the Dance, The Design of Everyday Things, to name a few – juxtaposed against the King’s Chapel selections. As the exhibition goes on, visitors will be able to suggest their own books that will be added to the collection as well, housed in a newly built ark.

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Because the uniquely constructed King’s Chapel cabinet was too heavy to move downstairs, artist Brent Budsberg built a replica of the cabinet – or the “ark,” as it’s called – to be the centerpoint of the exhibit. But there’s one difference: While the ark upstairs containing the collection is closed, this ark is open. Split in half and pulled apart to allow access, the inside of this new ark contains those shelves of recommendations. The ark is a symbolic representation of the opening of the collection to a new generation, new readers, and new voices. I stood browsing these new titles while at the same time viewing the old titles through the glass windows of the cabinet, past and present existing together.

The last display case before the exit is entitled, “What’s Missing?” It’s here that the Athenaeum goes beyond the collection to include some texts from that time period that weren’t included with the originals: a Bible in Native American language, a book inscribed with the names of women readers, a volume of Shakespeare, and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. This last display is a lingering reminder to continue to engage in voices that aren’t our own, aren’t familiar, and to continue redefining traditional definitions of “canon” and “required reading.”

Today, we live in a literary landscape where the traditionally narrow views of “necessary and useful” books expands and grows in inclusion each day. Three hundred years ago, a set of books sailed from England, crossing not only space to settle in Boston, but crossing time to challenge us to define what our understanding of this world should be.

“Required Reading: Reimagining a Colonial Library” is located in the Norma Jean Calderwood Gallery of the Boston Athenaeum, and is is open to the public until March 14, 2020. Find out more information here.