10 Facts About the North Devon Athenaeum

Over the course of 2018 we are aiming to bring you a total of 130 facts about us and what we do to celebrate our 130th Anniversary. To kick things off, here are 10 facts about the Athenaeum in general.

1. An Athenaeum is a literary club-room, a library or place of learning.

The word is derived from the Greek Goddess of wisdom, Athena and she is also associated with the arts. Athena is often represented by an owl and her Roman counterpart is Minerva.

The old NDA building now the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon

2. We were Founded in 1888

We were set up to be a free Library and Museum for Barnstaple and North Devon. Our President, Lord Fortescue, officially opened our doors on the 22nd August 1888 after the first meeting of the Board of Directors.

3. By William Frederick Rock

Rock 2
William Frederick Rock

A wealthy business man, Rock was born in Barnstaple but made his money in London. However, whilst Mr Rock set up the Athenaeum, he had no hand in the day-to-day running of the institution which was left up to the board of directors.

4. Our funding comes from  investments originally set up in 1888

We are a privately endowed charity. We run on the interest from the investments originally set up in our name by William Frederick Rock back in 1888.

5. We’ve been collecting items for over 170 years!

We may only be 130 years old, but we’ve actually been collecting items since 1845. The North Devon Athenaeum replaced the Barnstaple Literary and Scientific Institute, which was also founded by William Frederick Rock.

Book Plates 02

6. J R Chanter was the man behind the Rock

Whilst William Frederick Rock was our founder, he would not have been able to set up  the Literary and Scientific Institute or the North Devon Athenaeum without the help of his friend, local solicitor, John Roberts Chanter.

William Knill (2)7. Over the last 130 years there have been a total of 14 Librarians.

The first Librarian, William Knill, was also the last Librarian of the Literary and Scientific Institute.

8. There wasn’t a seperate reading room for ladies when we opened

Unlike other institutions set up around the same time, William Frederick Rock insisted there should be no seperate reading room for ladies in the new intitution. He did not want it to become a place for gossip or somewhere for them to interview prospective servants!

9. The Devon Library Service was once our Tenant.

Before we moved our reference library and archives into the newly built North Devon Libary and Record Office in 1988, the County run library rented the ground floor of our old building.

Ground Floor 1986

10. Our partnership with the North Devon Record Office and Local Studies Library was groundbreaking

While many Local Authorities have put their archives and local studies collections in one place. North Devon was the first place in the country to go into partnership with an outside organisation. Our unique partnership has allowed us to share resources and expertise to provide a single place where searchers can find out about their family and local history.


…Barum Athena

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