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A youthful turn for the venerable Boston Athenaeum

An April Fool’s party at the Athenaeum attracted young patrons. Boston Athenæum

In many ways, the Boston Athenaeum has existed as a kind of five-floor time capsule.

Stepping inside the hallowed confines of the private library has meant being transported into a world of 19th-century splendor — high ceilings, marble busts, spiral staircases, and a centuries-old nod to Brahmin culture.

Not to mention much of George Washington’s personal library, genuine Lewis and Clark artifacts, and regularly scheduled afternoon tea.

Today, though, the library finds itself in the midst of an unlikely makeover. It has a new director, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Barker, and an institutional push to be more relevant — maybe even hip.

Amid the bookshelves and oil paintings, the library now hosts craft beer nights, oyster tastings, even an April Fool’s Day party. The reading areas are increasingly filled with ear-budded millennials, the result of a membership drive that began a few years back.


Later this month, the place that still uses a dumbwaiter to distribute mail will offer an iPhone app for visitors’ self-guided tours through the public exhibits.

Founded in 1807 by a group of high-brow Bostonians — the nephew of President John Adams was its first librarian — the Athenaeum was built on the idea that the city’s deepest thinkers needed a place to read, discuss ideas, and take in cultural events. Almost from the start, it prospered.

With a membership made up largely of wealthy locals, the library became a gathering place for the area’s elite. Over the next two centuries, as its collection swelled to include more than 500,000 circulating books and 150,000 rare titles, it maintained that reputation.

But time takes a toll, and by the start of the 2000s, the Athenaeum was feeling the squeeze. In the wake of the recession, its endowment had shrunk significantly. Membership reportedly dropped more than 15 percent between 2004 and 2008, to roughly 4,300 — raising questions about the library’s long-term stability.


Robert K. Johnson, a 10-year member, enjoys the Albert Gordon Reading Room. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“It’s something that all institutions face, whether you’re a library or a museum or an orchestra,” said Athenaeum trustee John W. Everets, a 20-year member whose family has been a part of the library dating back to the 1840s. “How do you maintain your relevance as the future encroaches?”

So when the library, located at 10½ Beacon St., set out to find a new director, it did so with a specific kind of candidate in mind.

“I wouldn’t say that we went into our search saying that we needed or must have a younger person,” said trustee Elizabeth B. Johnson. “However, we did go into the search [discussing] someone who would help us draw a younger crowd, and someone who could help really establish us in this 21st century.”

Barker, 45, fit the profile. Much like the members she’s hoping to attract, she features a blend of old-school intellectualism and new-school know-how. She has a PhD in art history from New York University, but is also as reliant upon her smartphone as your average millennial. (“I can’t tell you the last time I unfolded a paper map,” she said. “If my iPhone can’t walk me there, I’ll never get there.”)

Director Elizabeth Barker is seeking to keep the Boston Athenaeum relevant. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Raised in Brunswick, Maine, Barker is neither a local nor a legacy. But she was drawn to the library — and the job — because of its uniqueness. There’s no other place in the world quite like it, she likes to say.


Since arriving last October from Amherst College, where she’d spent seven years as director of the Mead Art Museum, she has worked to position the Athenaeum as an accessible, inclusive space. And it seems to be working.

Since last October, the Athenaeum has added 738 memberships — up from 469 at the same time during the last fiscal year — bringing its current total to 5,336.

What’s more, roughly a third of the recent additions have been those 35 or younger. As of this month, younger membership had jumped nearly 25 percent since Oct. 1, 2014, as a fresh-faced army has found itself drawn to the library’s unique mix of history, elegance, and social activities.

Indeed, membership requirements have continued to loosen over time. Prospective members — once required to provide four references when applying — now need only pay an annual membership fee. Programming, long centered on readings and lectures, has evolved to include more casual offerings, such as martini-and-a-movie night.

And members are now permitted to bring multiple friends to some events, as a way to introduce the library to those not familiar with it.

Josh Reyes, a 32-year-old software engineer in Cambridge who joined the Athenaeum a year ago after attending a handful of events with friends, calls it “a beautiful space with a bunch of people who were awfully nice — and there was beer.”

Already entrenched on Facebook and Twitter, the library is now researching ways to use other forms of social media, such as Goodreads and Instagram. The latter, Barker believes, would be perfect for showing off images of the building’s private nooks and crannies.


“We’ve been able to encourage a kind of friendly informality to our events,” Barker said. “So things are not less elegant, but they’re a tiny bit more cheerful.”

Perhaps her most impressive feat, though, is that in such a traditional place, she has mostly managed to avoid the ire of the old-timers.

True, when Barker floated the idea of moving the library’s newspapers and magazines to the third floor to open up some first-floor space, she received a number of elegant and well-written messages from older members letting her know that the first floor was fine how it was, thank you.

But for the most part, things have gone smoothly.

Today, the library’s elders note the respect with which she’s carried out her task, and even long-standing members find themselves pleasantly surprised by the evening activities that have popped up in recent months.

Said trustee president and longtime member Deborah Hill Bornheimer, of a recent cabaret performance: “I heard that it was an absolute smash — it was swinging.”

Richard Kimball frequently visits the Athenaeum.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com.