The Boston Public Library is the third-largest library in the United States. It is home to more than 24 million volumes and 1.7 million rare books and manuscripts dating back to the medieval ages. Given Boston’s pivotal role in the founding of the United States, the library also houses many resources related to American history.
The collection of the library is massive and comprehensive. Early editions of the works of William Shakespeare are included, along with the personal 3,800-volume library of John Adams, the second president of the United States. Extending beyond literature, Boston Public Library is also the caretaker of watercolors and drawings by Thomas Rowlandson and the musical archive for the Handel and Haydn Society.
The original Boston Public Library (established in 1852) took up two rooms of the Adams School on Mason Street. As the collection expanded, the library moved several times before settling in to its current location at 700 Boylston Street. It opened in 1985, with an addition built in 1967. There are 24 branches today.
The library is renowned for its art and architecture. Architect Charles Follen McKim modeled the exterior of Boston Public Library with curves and arches similar to the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris. But he also included details that recall Boston’s own unique history, including a copper cornice along that roof that has alternating patterns of dolphins and seashells — a design that signifies the city’s history as a hub for maritime activity.
Other homages to Massachusetts are included throughout the library. A sculpture of Sir Henry Vane — the sixth governor of the Massachusetts colony — is in the vestibule of the McKim Building and a pair of unpolished lions on the Grand Staircase recognize two Massachusetts volunteer infantries that served in the Civil War. Even today, visitors to the library rub the tails of the lions for good luck.
Paintings, sculptures, woodwork and murals found throughout the Central Library were chosen carefully to reflect the library’s purpose. The entrance is accessed through three bronze doors sculpted by Daniel Chester-French, which display the symbolic figures for music, poetry, knowledge, wisdom, truth and romance.
Similarly, murals by painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes recognize the subjects that can be studied in the library, including philosophy, astronomy, history, chemistry, physics and poetry.
The mosaic tile work in the lobby of the Central Library was completed by Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino, who brought his signature tile-and-mortar style to the United States. The method of uses multiple layers of thin ceramic tile and mortar to create arched structures, such as vaults or domes.
The Johnson Building addition in the late 1960s expanded Boston Public Library to nearly 1 million square feet. It has been recently modernized and renovated to include a larger Children’s Library, Teen Central and a café. The broadcast radio station WGBH (FM) also operates out of the Boston Public Library.
In 2017, there were 3.8 million visitors to all branches of the Boston Public Library, 4.9 items borrowed and 9.8 million visits for its website. Scheduled tours are also available.