Just about any destination you head to in Boston takes you past the Boston Public Library on Copley Square. Don’t zip by–leave time to poke inside one of the city’s greatest structures. You just might find a day of enlightenment.
The building itself is a grand bit of architecture and artwork, with structural references to Italian palaces, soaring coffered and vaulted tile ceilings (designed by Rafael Guastavino, no less), a central courtyard, paintings by John Singer Sargent, and a sculpture garden. All lovely, but you’ll also find rare manuscripts and arcane artifacts. Oh, and two restaurants in case you need to feed more than your hunger for knowledge. Here are a dozen of my favorite items from among the hundreds in the library’s collections.
1. Under the same roof as People magazine and The Complete Book of Baby Names, ancient (2350 b.c.) Babylonian cuneiform tablets, recording bills of sale and a receipt for animals delivered to a temple for ritual sacrifice.
2. The first Congressional Gold Medal, presented to George Washington by the Continental Congress in commemoration of the evacuation of British troops from Boston, the first major victory of the American Revolution.
3. Locks of hair from Robert Browning, John Brown, and John Hancock.
4. An illuminated Catholicon of Giovanni Balbi of Genoa, the first dictionary in Western history printed with movable type and one of only 10 copies in the U.S. More than 700 double-columned vellum pages, it is believed to have been printed by Gutenberg himself in 1460.
5. Two copies of the first book printed in British North America, the Bay Psalm Book, published in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1640.
6. President John Adams’ personal library: 3,500 volumes, many annotated with his notes and comments.
7. A 33.5-foot-long, illuminated 15th-century French manuscript scroll, recording the history of the world from creation to the year 1380.
8. The largest collection of original materials relating to the murder trial and execution of Boston anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, including their ashes, death masks, and coroner’s report.
9. A complete edition of John James Audubon’s Birds of America in double elephant folio, completely hand-colored.
10. A signed 1773 copy of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley, the first published African American poet.
11. Two of the earliest printed editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
12. A signed manuscript copy of Robert Frost’s “Ten Books That Should Be in Every Public Library.”
When You Go
Boston Public Library
700 Boylston St. 617-536-5400; bpl.org
Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce
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