While Pittsfield celebrates its 250th anniversary in 2011, going back to 1761, the Berkshire Athenaeum is observing its 140th anniversary. The trustees of the Berkshire Athenaeum were incorporated on March 24, 1871, “for the purpose of establishing and maintaining, in the town of Pittsfield, an institution to aid in promoting education, culture, and refinement, and diffusing knowledge by means of a library, reading rooms, lectures, museums, and cabinets of art, and of historical curiosities.” The Berkshire Athenaeum has been Pittsfield’s public library ever since.
During the Athenaeum’s first thirty years, generous and enthusiastic benefactors contributed not only books, but fine art, statuary, and artifacts to the library’s growing collections. As a result, by 1900 the building was filled to capacity. In 1903, the Athenaeum assumed the responsibility for the newly created Berkshire Museum, located a block away on South Street, and for the next several years the Athenaeum was both a public library and museum until the latter organization spun off to form its own distinct operation in 1932. The current library is located in the center of Pittsfield, two doors away from the original Athenaeum building it replaced in 1975. While offering traditional library services – circulating collections, children’s programs, reference, WiFi and hard wired Internet access – the Athenaeum’s strength lies in its special collections of local history, genealogy, Berkshire authors and materials pertaining to Herman Melville. These special collections attract visitors from all over the world.
The Berkshire Athenaeum opened at its original Bank Row location in 1876, at a time when it was not unusual for libraries to be called “Athenaeums,” a Latin word meaning a place of learning. The Athenaeum, an ornate Great Barrington blue limestone, red Longmeadow freestone and Missouri granite building facing Park Square, wasn’t Pittsfield’s first library. As early as 1796 there were exclusive, non-circulating social libraries in Pittsfield. The Athenaeum’s immediate predecessors were the Young Men’s Association Library and later the Pittsfield Library Association, who charged annual fees from two to six dollars, and provided members with a small room opened one evening each week where reading took place by dim lantern light. The collections of the Association libraries were small by today’s standards, numbered in the hundreds of volumes, and by charter, “prose-works of fiction” were banned. In 1860, however, when Association membership was in decline, standard novels were purchased “with great caution,” a change that greatly improved local interest in the Association.
The community of almost 12,000 residents enthusiastically responded to their new library, and quickly outgrew the original building so that with private donations an addition to the rear of the building was added in 1897 at a cost of approximately $50,000. The current 55,000 square foot building opened to the public on September 4, 1975 at a cost of $2.5 million. It subsequently underwent modest renovations in 1997 and again in 2008 that included state-of-the-art technology upgrades to assure Pittsfield’s public library is poised to serve the present and future needs of local citizens. As the library’s mission asserts, “the Berkshire Athenaeum exists to initiate, nurture and feed a passion for knowledge and learning.”
In 1861, Thomas Allen, a Pittsfield native who made a fortune in St. Louis, MO, managing and financing the railroad west, donated $50,000 to his hometown for the construction of a library and exhibit area which would “promote culture, refinement, classical learning, and the study of practical science.” While his purpose was delayed because of disorders in Missouri caused by the civil war, others in Pittsfield continued to move forward with the plan. Thomas Plunkett and Calvin Martin, prominent Pittsfield businessmen, secured land on Bank Row, and with Allen’s contribution the Athenaeum was completed in 1876.