The Athenaeum Library

From its foundation in 1797, the Library has been one of the most important facilities associated with the Athenaeum. Though not the first library in Liverpool, it is now the only remaining substantial collection in private hands.

The collection of about 60,000 volumes has been created over the years by both purchase and donations from Proprietors. As well as books, the library also holds collections of pictures, ephemera associated with Liverpool, maps and charts and an extensive array of periodicals and journals, together with the records of the Athenaeum.


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.

Moving House

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.

Library Collections

The General Collection

The general collection is mainly stored in the stacks on open shelving. Due to the acquisitions policy the stock reflects the interests of Proprietors. It is strong in history, especially local topics, literature both English and foreign, biography, topography and classical and theological works. Topics such as science, engineering and technology are much less well covered.

Roscoe Collection

Bought by his friends at Roscoe’s bankruptcy sale, a number of volumes from his private collection, including manuscripts of his Italian histories, are preserved in a fine bookcase, thought to be by Gillow of Lancaster. Roscoe’s beautifully hand-illustrated study of Monandrian Plants is included in this collection. Items can be made available only on request and under supervision.

Blanco White Collection

Born in Spain to an Irish family, White began his theological progress as a Roman Catholic priest; he subsequently became an Anglican parson before becoming a Unitarian Minister. His collection of religious books illustrates his religious progression.

Special Collection

Also of navigational interest are the ‘Atlantic Neptune’ two volumes of folio size charts and views of the North American coast. Also included is a copy of ‘Assertio Sepeum Sanctorum Adversus Martin Luther’, the work that earned Henry VIII the title of Defender of the Faith from Pope Leo X. A copy of the 2nd edition of John Ogilby’s Britannia – England’s first road atlas is also held.

Monsarrat Collection

Given to the Athenaeum by Mrs Monsarrat the collection of works by the novelist Nicholas Monsarrat, comprises editions of his works in both English and foreign languages.

The Athenaeum also holds a collection of artifacts, two portraits, and a model of HMS Campanula, the ship commanded by the writer during World War II.

General Enquiries, including access to the Library

If you believe our Library may be able to help you with your enquiry, please email with the full details of your request and a Librarian will endeavour to respond to you within 10 working days. Please be aware that whilst an initial electronic consultation is free, access to information the library holds, or access to the library itself may incur a fee, decided on a case by case basis.

You can access our library catalogue online via and our archive via Searching these prior to contacting the Librarians may speed up your query.