Category Archives: Bibliophile Travels

Hughes Free Public Library

This one here is a photo-heavy post, but if you like old books and history, then take a breath and let it load. I think you’ll like hearing about the Hughes Free Public Library in operation since 1882.

Work had me on the road last year up on the Cumberland Plateau, which is where Rugby, TN, (population 64), is. While the founding of Rugby by the “second sons” is a fascinating read all by itself, it is the Hughes Free Public Library that really shines.

I was lucky enough to get to take a tour of the library and wanted to share some photos as this space remains almost completely untouched from its opening day back in 1882.

The library is named for Englishman Mr. Thomas Hughes. He founded the Rugby settlement as an “experiment”. When the Hughes Library opened it contained 6,000 books donated by publishers in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. In fact, many of the bookcases in the library are built from the actual crates the books were shipped in.

Here you can see the slats from the shipping crates that were repurposed to make bookshelves.

There were another 1,000 books donated from private collections and the Chicago Library (where there is a Thomas Hughes Reading Room). In 1900, the catalog records 7,000 books on the shelves. Today, there are 6,994. They have lost 6 books in the last 120+ years of operation. But when your patron list is counted in 10’s I guess it’s easy enough to keep track of who has books overdue.

The books are in absolutely amazing condition considering how often they were used and their age. I was told by the caretaker that this is due to a number of factors:

  1. the floor is triple layer of timber, to keep moisture out.
  2. the windows were intentionally spaced so they directed light onto the library tables and not the bookshelves themselves. That is why the spines and binding show very little sunning and bleaching.
  3. most all of the books are “rag paper” so there are none of the chemicals, etc. that are used in “pulp paper” books
  4. the location/climate coupled with the smart cupola in the ceiling help regulate temperature

If you ever find yourself up in that neck of the woods around historic Rugby, TN, it’ s certainly worth stopping in and seeing if you can get a tour yourself.

Portsmouth Athenaeum

The Portsmouth Athenaeum, in New Hampshire, has made my “book/library/shop that I must visit one day” list. How much fun would it be to peruse these stacks and hang out in their reading room for an afternoon? So cool.

The Athenaeum is a non-profit “membership” library where people pay dues to use the stacks and attend events. And folks have been doing that since 1817 when the library was founded. There is so much history here.

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I love the bookcases and tables. You can click through these photos to see the virtual tour page for the Portsmouth Athenaeum (it uses a shockwave viewer, so you may need a plug-in to scroll around), but it’s totally worth it if you like books and books about books.

There seems to be quite a history to the idea of a “member supported” library. It was quite the model for sharing books and knowledge 150 years ago. You could belong to a travel library, philosophy library, general lending library, etc. Whatever your interests were and you could afford. Almost like private clubs to a degree I imagine.

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Libraries have changed (for the better, I think) quite a bit over the years, but it sure is fun to look at these old stacks and think about how it used to be. Maybe I’ll make it up there one day to see it in person.