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Turmoil strikes Boston Athenaeum

The Albert Gordon Reading Room of the Boston Athenaeum. –John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Strife has erupted at the Boston Athenaeum, a venerable redoubt of Brahmin culture better known for afternoon teas and Beacon Hill reserve than for workplace clashes that spill into the public realm.

Even as the private library has courted younger members and improved fund-raising, it has been rocked by internal divisions and widespread staff departures: Nearly half of the Athenaeum’s roughly 55 employees have departed in the past 3½ years — a striking turn at an institution where tenure is often measured by the decade.

In more than a dozen interviews, current and former employees, board members, and longtime supporters of the Athenaeum described an institution in turmoil, as director Elizabeth Barker seeks to modernize the tradition-bound library she’s led since October 2014 while being accused of disregarding its essential character and expert staff.

A statue of Adam and Eve inside the Henry Long Room at the Boston Athenaeum. —John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
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