Subscription Libraries

These are privately-owned libraries that are open to the public, but a membership fee or special authorization is usually required for access. They do not include libraries attached to academic institutions, but are instead mostly those affiliated with reading societies, genealogical associations and privately-funded research archives concerning specific subjects.




The Boston Atheneum, founded in 1807, holds over 500,000 volumes and is open to members, who pay $230 annually for membership.



Bromley House Library in Nottingham, England was founded in 1816 as the Nottingham Subscription Library. It moved in 1822 to its present home, Bromley House, a dark red brick building built in 1752. The building contains many interesting period features and some fine paintings. The main part of the library is housed in a series of reading rooms with plaster ceilings, cornices and overmantels. A particularly fine spiral staircase and gallery is a feature of the largest room. The Library contains about 40,000 books: local history, topographical works, and a wide selection of 19th and early 20th century novels. In recent years the collection’s emphasis has been on biographies, travel books and new novels. Membership costs £75 ($118) per year.



The Mechanics' Institute Library in San Francisco, CA was founded in 1854. In its one hundred year-old landmark building on Post Street, the Institute serves its members with a large general-interest circulating and research library, offering book discussion groups, writers' groups, and Internet research classes, the oldest chess club in the United States with activities for players of all abilities from beginners to grand masters and an active program of literary and cultural events, including author programs, film series, salons, special events and art exhibitions.


6004 (KevArchie)

The Providence Athenaeum in Providence, Rhode Island. It is an independent membership library that opened in its current location in 1838; its progenitor was an earlier library, The Providence Library Company, founded in 1753.



The St. Johnsbury Athenaeum in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, comprises both a private non-profit public library of 45,000 volumes and an art gallery. St. Johnsbury residents are eligible for a free library card, and non-residents may purchase a one-year library card with full Athenaeum privileges, including free admission to the Art Gallery, for $13.70.


6006 (peppergrasss)

The Redwood Library and Athenaeum, a private subscription library in Newport, Rhode Island. Founded in 1747, it is the oldest community library still occupying its original building in the United States. The Library's modern collection now includes more than 160,000 volumes as well as a museum collection of art and artifacts. The building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966.



The University Club Library in Manhattan, New York. The University Club is a private club and hotel founded in 1861, and the current building was built in 1899. The library is an impressively-enormous, vaulted space with ornate gilding on the ceilings and thousands of books – perhaps the largest private library in the United States.



The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. is a special collections library founded in 1814 to collect materials "connected with the history and antiquities of America, and the useful arts, and generally to disseminate useful knowledge" for public benefit. The Athenaeum's collections include architecture and interior design history, particularly for the period 1800 to 1945. The institution focuses on the history of American architecture and building technology, and houses architectural archives of 180,000 drawings, 350,000+ photographs, and manuscript holdings of about 1,000 American architects. The Athenaeum building was designed in 1845 by the innovative architect John Notman (1810-1865), and is widely hailed as the seminal American structure in the Italianate Revival Style. Severely plain on the exterior and deceptive in scale, the Athenaeum building contains richly embellished reading rooms with 24-foot ceilings. Into these spaces has been gathered a museum collection of American fine and decorative arts from the period 1800 to 1850.


6009 (David J. Murray)

The Portsmouth Athenæum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It was founded in 1817 and the 1805 Federal style building, designed by architect Bradbury Johnson (1766-1820), was acquired by the society in 1823. Like most athenæums, it combines the functions of a library with those of an art gallery and museum. The institution retains certain 19th century customs -- members are "proprietors," and the director is "keeper." Its collection now includes more than 40,000 books, with an archive of about 12,000 photographs, 4000 of which are posted on the Athenæum's website.



The Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla, California. The library began in 1894 as a general subscription library, but it donated all its materials of general interest to the local public library system in 1955, concentrating its holdings in music and art. Its collections include more than 14,000 art books, music books, and young people's books in art and music, housed in a 1920s Spanish-Renaissance-style building combined with a newer structure built in the 1950s.