Founded in the middle of the 18th century, the New York Society Library is the oldest public library in New York City. Among the famous library’s overdue books is a collection checked out by George Washington, estimated to be worth $300,000, according to a Guardian report. Fortunately, not all the books are overdue.
The library was officially established in 1754 by William Alexander, John Marin Scott, William Smith, Philip Robert, and William Livingston—the same William Livingston that would go on to become the first governor of New Jersey. According to a pamphlet issued by the library in 1937, in the collection of the New-York Historical Society, the original books were drawn from the Corporation Library, which had been a private library consisting of the books of an English priest named Reverend John Millington.
The library was originally located in a room in the old City Hall, and it remained there until 1795, though in 1776 it was looted by British soldiers, who traded books for grog, an alcoholic beverage popular at the time among soldiers and sailors. In 1788 the library reformed with new trustees, and once more took its place in the City Hall. As Congress was meeting there at the time, it served as the de facto Library of Congress for the United States, and records show withdrawals from, as we have already seen, George Washington, as well as John Adams and many other notable figures.
In 1795 the library moved to a new building on Nassau Street, and in 1839 it merged with the New York Athenaeum, adding its books to the library’s collection—by this time, the collection amounted to over 25,000 volumes, according to the same pamphlet as previously mentioned.
In 1840, the library’s expanded collection compelled it to move to a new building on Leonard street in Tribeca, and then again in 1856 to 109 University Place, where it remained for the next eighty years. By 1850, the collection had reached 35,000 volumes, and by 1872, 60,000.
Then, in 1937 the library moved to its present location on East 79th Street, after a particularly generous endowment by Mrs. Sarah C. Goodhue, a rich widow. The new site was a mansion built just 20 years before, and the library relocated to it on account of its massive collection of books, which had reached well over 150,000 volumes.
The Library had few members in its early years. By 1795 there were still only 250 subscribers, four of whom were women. However, among these early users were none other than Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, John Adams, and other prominent figures. Between the years 1836 and 1855 recorded visitors include Charles Dickens, Napoleon III, Martin Van Buren, Sir Robert Peel, and other world-famous figures.
Though book borrowing privileges are restricted to members, non- members have access to reading and reference materials in the library. Membership fees range from $320 for a household pass to $215 for an educational pass. Featuring a collection of over three hundred thousand volumes available to members, as well as cozy reading rooms and various events, the Society Library is a premier location for research and reading.
In my research for this report I uncovered in the New-York Historical Society library a copy of the actual pamphlet commemorating the library’s centennial celebration. Issued in 1872, the pamphlet contained a speech given by the president of the board of trustees, Dr. Thomas Ward. In it, he concludes by looking to the future president giving the bicentennial address:
I say to him that I expect him to tell his hearers on that interesting occasion, when relating to them the subsequent history of our Institution, that after some further wanderings in a northerly direction it has finally been permanently established in some beautiful portion of our upper island, like Washington Heights; in an elegant and commodious edifice, with a spacious reading-room opening upon a charming parterre of flowers, enriched with fountains, and statuary; with a noble library of 200,000 volumes, with a list of 3,000 shareholders, and under the guidance of an administration of superior executive ability—if possible—to the present.
Though it hasn’t reached Washington Heights quite yet, it certainly has wandered northward, and has grown above and beyond Ward’s ambitious goal of 200,000 volumes. Its edifice is certainly “elegant” and “commodious,” and, as he said earlier in the same address, “Books are… the best of companions; they are the steadiest of friends; we know where to find them in our time of need.” When one is in need of a good companion, the Society Library is where to find one.
This article was written by Ephraim Kozodoy, an 11th-grader from Collegiate in the Summer of 2015 as part of a partnership between Literary Manhattan and the New-York Historical Society Summer Scholars program. Click here to learn more.
Andrew Solomon: This Pulitzer-nominated author called the reading room here one of his favorite places in Manhattan to study.