Maria Mitchell for Students

Teacher and Librarian

“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

1836.

The Atheneum was not a public, free library, but Maria’s sister Phebe noted that the price of subscription “was very inexpensive to the shareholders.” Since the library was open during limited hours and was often quiet, Maria spent much of her almost twenty years there continuing her personal education through learning subjects like Latin, German, celestial mechanics (physics), and advanced mathematics. At around the time Maria took up her job as librarian, she and her family moved to the Pacific National Bank, where her father had taken a position as chief cashier.

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.

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.

Pacific Bank, Nantucket

The Pacific National Bank, William Mitchell’s workplace and the family’s home, as it appeared in the 19th century. Collection of Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association.

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.

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