The oldest cultural institution in New York City is The New York Society Library. Before the foundation of the New York Public Library in 1895, New Yorkers referred to it as the City Library. Briefly, it even served as the research library for Congress years before the establishment of the Library of Congress.
David Halberstam pointed out, “Herman Melville and Willa Cather were members, and Melville did some of his most important research there.” Halberstam cited Melville having visited The New York Society Library in 1850 and borrowed its copy of William Scoresby’s Journal of a Voyage to the Northern Whale Fishery (published in 1823), which he returned thirteen months later. For context, Harper & Brothers published Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, in 1851.
In March of 1754, a time when there were no public libraries, only private libraries, research libraries of organizations, and social libraries supported by fees paid by society members, a group of six civic-minded individuals formed The New York Society Library. Anyone with money could join a social library such as the one they founded. This excluded poor people, but it was more egalitarian than the research libraries of learned societies, which could only be utilized by members and guests.
Note that The New York Society Library prefers the phrase “subscription library.” The trustees and staff state, “The Library is open to all for reading and reference, though one must be a member to use the stacks and reading rooms or check out books.”
Anyone is welcome to use the Library in the Reference Room on the first floor. We will retrieve any items you wish to read. Also, many of our special events are open to everyone. To access the stacks, reading rooms, and designated programs, you must be a member.
The founders of The New York Society Library – William Alexander, John Morin Scott, William Smith, and Philip Livington, Robert Livingston, and William Livingston – believed the collection they amassed “would be very useful as well as ornamental to the City.” With the permission of Lieutenant Governor James DeLancey (1703-1760) and the Common Council, they opened their reading room in New York City’s second City Hall, which stood at Wall Street and Nassau Street. Most of the first books in the collection were either gifts of Reverend John Sharp or were acquired from the estate of Reverend John Millington.
At a meeting held on April 30, 1754 at the Exchange Coffee Room on Broad Street, the first twelve trustees were elected: Lt. Governor DeLancey, James Alexander, William Alexander, the Reverend Henry Barclay, John Chambers, Robert R. Livingston, Joseph Murray, Benjamin Nicoll, William Peartree Smith, William Walton, and John Watts. They held their first meeting on May 7, 1754, and ordered books from London. The New York Society Library opened in October.
The first librarian was Benjamin Hildreth. His title was Library Keeper. He worked on Wednesday afternoons from two o’clock to four with an annual salary of £6.
In 1772, The New York Society Library received a royal charter from George III (1738-1820), King of Great Britain and King of Ireland (1760-1820). While British troops occupied New York City during the American War of Independence, British troops looted The New York Society Library. Some of them tore up books to use paper for wadding their flintlock rifles.
Others sold books to buy rum. The trustees did not meet between April of 1774 and December of 1788. In the postwar years, The New York Society Library regained possession of a few books that had been stored in St. Paul’s Chapel in Lower Manhattan, while some others were recovered in 1784 through advertisement.
The New York State Legislature – the successor of the wartime New York Provincial Congress, which succeeded the Province of New York Assembly – confirmed the royal charter in 1789. The Common Council again gave permission for The New York Society Library to open a reading room in City Hall.
In 1788-89, this building became Federal Hall while New York City served as the first federal capital after adoption of the Constitution of the United States of America in 1788. The building at 26 Wall Street became City Hall again when Philadelphia became the second federal capital in 1790.
George Washington (1732-1799), President of the United States (1789-1797), and John Jay (1745-1829), Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1789-1795), amongst other Founding Fathers, used The New York Society Library during this period.
President Washington never returned the two books he had borrowed. One of these books was The Law of Nations, an English translation of Droit des gens; ou, Principes de la loi naturelle appliqués à la conduite et aux affaires des nations et des souverains by the Swiss philosopher and diplomat Emmerich de Vattel (1714-1767), which Washington borrowed on October 5, 1789.
On May 19, 2010, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union presented The New York Society Library with a replacement copy of The law of nations, or, Principles of the law of nature: applied to the conduct and affairs of nations and sovereigns. The other book Washington had someone fetch from The New York Society Library was a volume on debates in the British Parliament. Vice President John Adams (1735-1826) came in person to borrow Elements of Criticism by Henry Home (1696-1782), Lord Kames.
In 1795, The New York Society Library’s holdings had grown to 5,000 volumes. It moved its own building at 33 Nassau Street. The trustees had leased land on which the Guaranty Trust Company of New York had formerly stood and erected their first purpose-built library building. Visitors there included diplomat, historian, biographer, satirist, short story-writer, and magazine editor Washington Irving (1783-1859) and adventure novelist James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851).
Between 1836 and 1855, The New York Society Library hosted visits by Prince Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (1808-1873) – the future Emperor Napoleon III – English novelists Charles Dickens (1812-1870) and William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863); Prince Paul of Württemberg, two-time British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), 2nd Baronet; and President Martin Van Buren (1782-1862). After it merged with the New York Athenaeum, in 1840 The New York Society Library moved into its second purpose-built library building at the intersection of Leonard Street and Broadway.
The New York Library Society later absorbed the New York Athenaeum altogether. That same year, 1840, The New York Society Library introduced temporary memberships that cost one year for $10, six months for $6, or three months for $4.
At the new location, browsers included the philosopher, essayist, and poet Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and the ornithologist and artist Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon (1785-1851), who is better known here as John James Audubon. Poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and short story-writer, critic, and magazine editor Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) gave lectures. The New York Society Library received its first legacy in 1849 of $5,000 – a small fortune – from Miss Elizabeth DeMilt.
 Actually, this was a matter of New York City remaining the capital, as it had been the capital of the old confederacy under the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. It was in Federal Hall that the Continental Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. [Philadelphia served as the second federal capital while Washington, D.C. was under construction from 1790 to 1800.] Although Federal Hall was (rather stupidly) demolished in 1812, the U.S. Government built the United States Custom House in 1841 on the same spot. In 1855, Customs moved to 55 Wall Street, and the building became the U.S. Sub-Treasury. It is now the National Park Service’s Federal Hall National Memorial.