Depending on whom you ask, the Greek goddess Athena was a symbol of war, wisdom, pottery, weaving, justice, courage, virtue, or mathematics. So perhaps it's fitting that the local library bearing her name — the legendary PROVIDENCE ATHENAEUM (251 Benefit Street, providenceathenaeum.org), perched on the slope of College Hill — would have such diverse holdings. Cookbooks. Biographies. Mysteries. An 18th century handwriting manual called The Universal Penman. The library's founders intended it to be a generalist's playground, says director of programs and public engagement (and occasional Phoenix contributor) Christina Bevilacqua. For men basking in the afterglow of revolution, the library was part of a movement "to make available to everyone access to knowledge about everything" and, in so doing, provide vital nourishment for the infant republic. "In a democracy, you have to take responsibility for who your elected leaders are," Bevilacqua says, "And, therefore, it's very important to have an informed citizenry." Checking out a copy of The Hunger Games never felt so noble.

Providence isn't alone in its tribute to the goddess. Newport's REDWOOD LIBRARY & ATHENAEUM (50 Bellevue Ave, redwoodlibrary.org) is the oldest lending library in the United States, having first opened its doors in 1750. Like its Providence counterpart (they're not technically affiliated), the Redwood fills its evenings with salons featuring artists and authors. And like the Providence Athenaeum, it's also doing its part to stay current. Since July, its historical oil portrait collection has been augmented by a playful, conceptual art installation from sculptor and Old Dominion professor Peter Eudenbach. The exhibit involves model ships suspended from ceilings, mirrors installed on the building's external façade, and curious items (globes, skeleton keys, inflatable yellow life rafts) scattered throughout the library grounds.


If the oil paintings and leather-bound books have left you a little buttoned-up, you can exhale. There are libraries with looser vibes, they're just a bit harder to find. At the Viola Building on Broadway, in Providence, there is nothing much to indicate a library resides inside other than a sidewalk sandwich board that reads, "¡OPEN ABIERTO!" followed by — on the evening I visited — a quote from anarchist writer and activist Emma Goldman: "Ask for work. If they don't give work, ask for bread. If they don't give work or bread, TAKE the BREAD!"

So marks the entrance to LIBERTALIA AUTONOMOUS SPACE (280 Broadway, libertaliapvd.org), the radical political think tank that, among other things, plays host to an ad hoc library dubbed "FERTILIZER." The library is not your typical "Quiet Time" space, a Libertalia member recently explained to me. (Collective members prefer not to give names to the press.) With pot-luck dinners on Wednesdays and movie nights on Fridays, it's designed for networking and organizing. "If you're new to town or haven't been in the past, the library is really kind of like a vibrant place for discussion," the member said. And with racks of provocative journals ("Prison Life," "Radical America") and zines ("Fuck the System"), starting a conversation should be no problem. Before you leave, be sure to check out the D.I.Y. section, where shelves hold instruction books on everything from muay thai (a Thai combat sport) to holistic health to indoor gardening to dream interpretation.

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