Athenaeum opens arms to new city

The Melbourne Athenaeum Library is reaching out to the community – much as it did when it was established in 1839.

The Athenaeum, in Collins St, provided Melbourne’s first cultural heartbeat after it was built by the city’s founders, housing at various times a museum and an art gallery, which are both long gone. The theatres and library, however, have endured – surviving waves, fads and trends to remain available to the citizens of postcode 3000.

Athenaeum business manager Sue Westwood explained that the subscription-based library occupied a unique position in the local cultural landscape.

“When we were exploring future directions, we kept coming back to our origins as a place to serve the cultural needs of the locals,” she said.

In the beginning, the Athenaeum was a mechanics institute – a 19th century centre of learning and entertainment.

“Mechanics institutes were meeting places, centre of entertainment, places for births, deaths, marriages, 21st birthdays, engagements – whatever,” she said.

“In local towns they have evolved according to the needs of the community, and that’s what we are trying to do here – to evolve according to the needs of this community.”

Built directly by its members, the Athenaeum owns its Collins St premises, which it mostly rents out to provide income for its activities.

Ms Westwood said:  “We feel that cultural connection is a really important thing.   Here you can pay $100 a year and you can get music, art, readings, books. You get a cultural hit without paying so much money for it.”

“If you are joining the library for the first time, we would hope you would feel that you are just not joining a library, you are joining a community as well as a rich cultural tradition.”

“When people join, they become one of the custodians of the Melbourne Athenaeum.  In a sense, they own a piece of Collins St.”

As well as catering for the literary tastes of eight book clubs, members are also spoiled with regular live classical music on Fridays, varied speakers, Saturday board games events and the chance to join a screen club.

“If you want to connect with people with a common cultural interest, we have an annual program of events,” Ms Westwood said.

She said the Athenaeum offered a perfect opportunity for inner-city dwellers to connect.

“People can share a corridor in apartment living, but sometimes they don’t get the opportunity to tap into who their neighbours are and what their interests are.”

“Apartment living can be quite isolating, so we’re offering to create community networks.”

“We want people to know that there is a warm, inviting, comfortable place to meet in the heart of the city.  It’s open six days a week and it’s available for community use.”

“Our library is more like libraries used to be – a quiet, contemplative place – but located in the middle of a very vibrant, noisy city.”

Many CBD residents have already discovered the benefits of Athenaeum Library membership. And it’s not just for the empty-nesters. The Athenaeum recognises that the CBD has a young, transient population and is welcoming of students and other local residents.

“We want to be responsive to what the community’s needs are. We can’t set up a bike repair service or a men’s shed. But anything within the confines of a group of people coming together to share is potentially available,” Ms Westwood said.

The Melbourne Athenaeum Library is at Level 1, 188 Collins St. For more information call 9650 3100 or visit www.melbourneathenaeum.org.au

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