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... And the Humanities

"The modern generation has scarcely heard of the Boston Athenaeum and has, therefore, no notion of the enchantment which lurks within its nail-studded, leather doors." The writer of these Monitor lines 55 years ago would be astonished at how today's generation has caught up with one of the nation's oldest independent circulating and research libraries. It has an association of readers under 35, literary and artistic events for the whole community, and now a $425,000 "challenge grant" from Washington to automate its library system for access to all.

Since the Athenaeum is just a few subway stops from us, we use it as an example of what such challenge grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) are doing all over the country to spread America's cultural riches. Each grant requires the recipient to raise $3 or $4 from nonfederal sources for every dollar of the grant. Since NEH began these grants in 1977, the program has distributed $340 million, which has brought in $1.15 billion in nonfederal support for libraries, universities, museums, and other institutions.

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With a 3-to-1 match, the Athenaeum will have to raise $1.275 million to receive $425,000, adding up to $1.7 million. Similarly, the Thomas D. Clark Foundation in Lexington, Ky., will match $300,000 with $900,000 for $1.2 million to enhance the University Press of Kentucky's humanities book publishing program with emphasis on Appalachian studies and adult literacy.

The National Endowment for the Humanities provides such grants - and other forms of cultural support, including backing for landmark projects like PBS's "The Civil War" - from a budget reduced by 36 percent to $110 million this year, as compared with the 40 percent lost by its companion National Endowment for the Arts. For the country's good - as important as goods - it seems short-sighted to keep whittling away at amounts that are not that big in relation to the times.

Even as it is, that Monitor writer in 1941 might have been bemused by the benefactions received by the Athenaeum and fellow institutions. After all, then the Athenaeum was still serving afternoon tea for 3 cents including one cookie, another cookie for another penny.

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