“My Atheneum ‘boys’ have turned out wonderfully well – they were good boys at the outset or I should not have employed them . . . Some information they could not help getting from the handling of good books.” Maria Mitchell
Maria was so inspired by her experiences with education that she became a teacher’s assistant at her former school at the age of sixteen. She founded a private school on Traders’ Lane, near Vestal Street, a year later, but left that post to become the first librarian at Nantucket’s Atheneum in
In the year 1836: Arkansas became America’s 25th state in this year. Wisconsin had also just become an American territory on its way to statehood. The United States was much smaller in land area than it is today, but the Western frontier was being pushed further and further toward the Pacific Ocean.
The word athenaeum, also spelled atheneum, comes from the name Athena, for the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom and learning. Athenaeums were often like libraries, in that they were spaces used to store collected books that members could borrow. They were often opened not only as lending libraries, but also as a special space where authors and readers could meet to discuss literature and important issues. Additionally, it was simply a place where members could sit, read, and relax. Unlike the public libraries that we are now used to, in order for you to use the services of an Athenaeum, you generally needed to pay for a year-long membership. Today, the Nantucket Atheneum, where Maria worked, is a free public library.
In Maria’s time, the Atheneum was known for serving as a meeting place for forward thinkers of the time, and as the site of public lectures by important figures, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, native Nantucketer Lucretia Coffin Mott, and
Frederick Douglass, American abolitionist author and statesman, adopted February 14, 1818 as his date of birth (his birth date was never established), the same year as Maria Mitchell was born. On August 11, 1841, he spoke for the first time before a large, public, integrated audience at the Nantucket Atheneum while Maria was librarian there.
Maria grew comfortable with her role at the Atheneum, chatting with her patrons and monitoring the reading habits of the young children who came to see her at her post. Maria’s quiet life, however, would soon be transformed by a major event.
The Mitchells now lived in the center of town, at the top of lower Main Street, and the Atheneum was just a short walk away. Maria was known for aiding her brothers and sisters. Phebe tells one story about Maria’s helping to pay for a piano that one of her sisters wanted to purchase. However, music was prohibited by Quaker rules. Maria was the one to greet her parents on the stairs with the announcement that they had brought the forbidden piano into the house. Perhaps it is not surprising that both Maria and her siblings would all eventually leave Quaker meeting in order to allow themselves greater personal freedom.