Sights ~ Providence Public Library

Providence Public Library
Central Library
150 Empire St.
Providence, Rhode Island

Providence Public Library exterior
Original Providence Library building
This is the downtown branch of the Providence Public Library (PPL). Until last year, it was the central branch and headquarters of a library district that included nine branches throughout the city's neighborhoods. However during the financial crisis of 2008-09, the library's endowment was significantly depleted, and the organization announced that it was going to close all or some of the branches. A group of concerned citizens stepped in and took over the branches, forming the Providence Community Library. The branches remain open, and the Central branch is the only one that still belongs to the PPL.

The library is a private non-profit corporation with more than 1 million articles. These range from the latest bestsellers on "Playaway" - a one-book listening device - to baked clay cuneiform tablets more than 2,000 years old. It houses one of the most extensive whaling collections in the country (the Nicholson collection) as well as some very interesting artifacts including scrimshaw that would make my mom's eyes light up.

It's the largest library in the city, with more resources than any of the other branches. Bear and I go there occasionally, although parking is often a hassle. The original part of the building was built in 1894 (I think it's in the Empire style), and the new section added on in 1953. The severe square gray cement of the new section reminds me of a Soviet housing block, and is very mismatched to the original architecture. Even more strangely, the floors don't match up inside. This is probably due to the height of the ceiling in the original part of the library.

connection between Providence Public Library's old and new sections
where old meets new - the connection between the original library building and the addition
It appears that there was a proposal to make the addition architecturally similar to the original building. Other than cost, I can't imagine why they decided to go with the mismatched modern addition.
CENTRAL Library -Exterior DRAWING
from PPL's Flickr account

I've been having some trouble finding information on the history of the library itself. Based on some photos in its Flickr account, the library was founded in 1876, but they they celebrated their centennial in 1978. This despite the carving on the building reading 1894. Confusing.

The inside of the library has a lot of quirks as well. The main section is more or less consistent with its outside architecture, and was carefully restored in the 70s.

PPL old section with chandelier

However the new addition doesn't precisely line up with the original building, so there are half-stairs and places where you have to take an elevator, then go down a hallway to a different elevator to get where you're going. It can be a little confusing until you get the hang of it.

The third floor of the original building houses offices and meeting rooms, and the Special Collections. There's also a special printing room with an antique press. Special collections is housed in what was originally the children's section, and the mural is still visible along the top of the wall.

It's definitely worth a visit, especially if you catch them when these rooms are open.


  1. This reminds me of the RISD Museum - all mismashed buildings with no logical flow up and down random stairs - but it added to the character of the experience. The photo inside that you share is beautiful. It would be fun to talk to someone in their records dept. and ask about the building's true history - figure out those dates.

  2. I hope to do that one of these times. The Bear is losing patience for the research end of these outings, so there often isn't a lot of time for conversation.


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