About the New York Society Library
For over 250 years, the New York Society Library has played a crucial role in promoting access to books in New York City and beyond, making it an essential contributor to the city’s status as a communications hub. The library has attracted numerous famous figures, including George Washington, Herman Melville, Willa Cather, and Truman Capote.
The library was established in 1754 by a group of civic-minded individuals who recognized the need for a subscription-based library open to the public that offered a broad selection of books. It initially operated from a room in the old City Hall, located on Wall Street facing Broad Street. It was known as “the City Library” for 150 years until the establishment of the public library system in 1895. The library received a charter from George III in 1772, which the New York State Legislature after the Revolution later confirmed.
During the Revolution, British soldiers occupying Manhattan looted the library’s books, some of which were used as wadding for rifles, and others were sold for rum. A few books that had been stored at St. Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan were recovered after the war, and others were found through advertisement.
In 1789, the library reopened in its previous location at the old City Hall, which served as the first Library of Congress in 1789 and 1790 when New York was the nation’s capital and Congress occupied the building. George Washington and John Jay were among the library’s users, and two books were charged out to Washington but never returned. In 2010, the library was formally presented with another volume of one of the missing books, The Law of Nations by Emer de Vattel, by representatives from Mount Vernon.
By 1795, the library had grown to 5,000 volumes and moved into its own building at 33 Nassau Street, which was visited by the likes of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. As the city continued to grow, the library moved locations to keep up with its readers, including Leonard Street and Broadway in 1840, where Henry David Thoreau and John James Audubon browsed, and 109 University Place in 1856, frequented by Herman Melville and Willa Cather. The library’s current location is at 53 East 79th Street, where it has been since 1937, and has been frequented by a wide range of famous figures, including W.H. Auden, Clarence Day, Lillian Hellman, Barbara Tuchman, David Halberstam, Wendy Wasserstein, Shirley Hazzard, P.G. Wodehouse, Mary McCarthy, and countless others. After 267 years, the New York Society Library remains a vital and beloved institution in the life of the city.
10 Interesting Facts about the New York Society Library:
- The New York Society Library is the oldest library in New York City, founded in 1754.
- It is the only survivor of the original “Circulating Libraries” that served New York in the eighteenth century.
- It has over 300,000 books and manuscripts in its collection.
- The library is one of the few remaining subscription libraries in the United States.
- It is home to a rare book collection that includes editions of works by authors such as Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton.
- It is a member of the Council of American Overseas Research Centers and the American Library Association.
- The library has hosted readings, lectures, and events featuring authors such as John Updike, Erica Jong, and Joyce Carol Oates.
- The library is located in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
- It has a beautiful garden courtyard featuring a collection of 18th and 19th-century sculptures.
- The library was founded with the mission to promote “the advancement of literature and the useful arts.”
With such a storied history, we know that current and future patrons will enjoy these New York Society Library chairs for decades to come!