The Athenaeum was founded in 1797 to provide a library and newsroom in which gentlemen could receive and share information, instead of going to over-crowded coffee houses or the poorly-stocked local library.
Mr Edward Rogers was inspired by the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society and saw the demand for such an institution in Liverpool. He proposed his idea at a meeting of prominent local figures including Mr Roscoe, a businessman and anti-slavery campaigner as well as an author, collector and scientist. The gentlemen produced a prospectus stating the aim to provide ‘a valuable repository of books in every department of useful knowledge.’ From the start women could be members of the library but not proprietors. The library was central to the Athenaeum, and while a building was constructed in Church Street, a library collection also had to be built from scratch.
Building the Collection
The founding proprietors given the task of buying books ‘were among the ablest scholars in the country’ and they began with works ‘which no gentleman’s library should be without.’ The first book entered into the Accession Register was The Works of H. Walpole, Earl of Orford, which can still be found in the stacks.
The library opened on 1st May 1800 and by 1820 held over 10,000 volumes. In the first five years £3211 were spent on books but from 1805 the annual library grant was reduced due to debt the Athenaeum incurred in establishing the institution, although the collection’s high status attracted donations such as the Blanco White Collection, as it does to this day. The Roscoe collection was bought for the Athenaeum by William Roscoe’s friends when he was declared bankrupt in 1816.
In 1867 the portion of the library grant spent borrowing books from subscription libraries was reduced as it caused the neglect of the permanent library. By 1900 the library committee established a system by which £10 of the money for subscriptions was used to purchase books, and after one year those deemed to be the best were kept. Collecting policy was also revised as more libraries opened in Liverpool and several scientific and botanical works were given to University College, Liverpool.
On 19th December 1897 the centenary of the Athenaeum was celebrated by an exhibition of treasures.
Occasionally items are sold to raise funds for new books, and the sale of the Glenriddell manuscripts in 1913 caused particular strife. On the death of Robert Burns the Athenaeum had lent his original manuscripts to the Burns Federation for an exhibition in Glasgow which prompted interest in the national treasures. When the manuscripts were later sold to an American there was a public outcry in Scotland and disagreement among the proprietors. Eventually the American gave the manuscripts to the Scots.
In 1866 the City Council decided that Church Street needed widening, and asked the Athenaeum to move. In January 1924, after lengthy negotiations, the proprietors finally voted to move to a site in Church Alley where the Council would fund the construction of a new building. In preparation for the move the Master and librarian Frederick Blair reclassified the books under the Dewey Decimal System, despite opposition from some proprietors.
The new library, opened in November 1928, boasted a strong room and state of the art steel stacking, as well as a reading room of architectural merit with three panels by Edward Halliday depicting tales of the goddess Athena.