HOUSE OF KNOWLEDGE The Providence Athenaeum.
There is plenty to do outdoors during a New England winter: skiing, skating, snowboarding, ice-yachting. I just don't do any of it.
Instead, I'm usually sitting in warm rooms with creaky floors and walls lined with rows of books. Yes, local libraries, where the turn of a page counts as exercise and the only sound is hissing radiators. And for a such small state, Rhode Island offers a remarkable mix of options.
So trade in your spandex and snowshoes for a library card. This is your essential Winter 2012-2013 Guide.
Let the Philistines pub-crawl. In a cultural hub like Providence, the library crawl is the thinking man's way to stave off the cold. I recommend starting at the wall of small wooden drawers on the second floor of the PROVIDENCE PUBLIC LIBRARY (150 Empire Street, provlib.org). Here you'll find the index for the Rhode Island Collection, a catalog of the PPL's holdings (books, journals, historic Providence Journal and Evening Bulletin stories available on microfilm) covering every conceivable topic under the Ocean State's cold winter sun. The drawer labels are evocative enough — "Art to Assault & Battery," "Galilee to Gamblers and Gambling," "Medicare to Meteors," "Refuse Disposal to Regattas" — but the real fun is playing historical roulette: picking a random index card in a random drawer to see what info awaits. Did you know the phrase "What Cheer?" — part of a greeting uttered by Narragansett Indians to Rhode Island founder Roger Williams — has been stamped on breweries, banks, buildings, steamships, printing houses, stables, rocks, shirt companies, and a 1920s airport in Pawtucket? You will after perusing Rhode Island Collection Drawer #279: "Weetamoo to Whipping."
If card catalogs don't get your pulse pumping (what's wrong with you?), take a stroll across town, up the white marble stairs of the Rhode Island State House, through the metal detectors at the entrance, past the infamous "Holiday Tree," and into the RHODE ISLAND STATE LIBRARY (sos.ri.gov/library). It took nearly a decade to construct this building, and standing in rooms like this, you can see why. The doors are the size of banquet tables, the railings and light fixtures are made of gleaming brass, and the ceilings are intricately painted with gold-leaf paint. On your first visit, you'll want to browse ephemera like General Nathanael "The Fighting Quaker" Greene's sword and flecks of moon dust from the Apollo 11 mission. But the heart of the library is its 150,000-volume collection of law books, voting records, historical treatises, and state agency reports. A word of warning from state librarian Tom Evans: don't climb the room's tiered balconies if you're afraid of heights.
From Smith Hill, follow the scent of musty paper to the PROVIDENCE CITY ARCHIVES on the fifth floor of City Hall (25 Dorrance Street, providenceri.com/archives). Like the State Library, the archives are filled with historical curiosities. There's a shovel with "Memorial Blvd. RIVER RELOCATION 4-12-88" painted in its scoop and a panoramic photo of a New England Manufacturers Jewelry Association gala at the Biltmore in 1928. And city archivist Paul Campbell is always happy to show off the piece de resistance: the open, airy attic inside the building's dome, where piles of old books teeter and spiral staircases lead high into darkened rafters. The archives have an added attraction in the upcoming months, as restoration expert Alice Miles continues her work reviving the mayoral portrait collection. Visit on a weekday morning and you'll likely see her surrounded by lights, magnifying glasses, brushes, and paint tubes, tending to one of our late, great mayors like a master surgeon.