About Us

Jacques Barzun


In a city such as New York, with its permanent booming confusion, one frequently feels the need of an oasis. That this remark is far from original testifies to the necessity; everybody would like to find scattered over Manhattan a dozen places of instant rest and repose. For many of us—my friends and I will bear witness—The New York Society Library is one of these longed-for oases. It is perhaps the most cherished, well ahead of clubs and hairdressers, because in addition to the palm trees that give shade and protection from the desert wind, it affords also the cool fountain of knowledge.

From the very street door, the Library welcomes—indeed, entices. That shaded vestibule, those smooth, low marble steps leading gently upward to the glow of the entrance proper pacify the agitated mind and whisper a promise to fulfill whatever need or whim one may entertain. And once within, here are the pleasant welcoming figures of the staff, persons of infinite resource, ready to perform whatever the promise held out.

At their command is a collection of books, maps, and pictures truly remarkable for its spread of interest. It must have been so from the start in 1754, when the founders sent to England their urgent lists of titles, many still with us. They revealed, no doubt, in the accumulation of a greater number and greater variety of works than their individual purses were disposed to afford. And so it went under their successors, until the day when, thanks to Mark Piel's encyclopedic direction, the corralling of new and old books reached the present gratifying total, a treasury that one would wish to house at home, in a circular study a furlong in diameter.

And, let me add, those are the right books. By this I do not mean that since they satisfy my elevated desires they must therefore answer everybody else's. The shelves and tiers are full of works that I shall never disturb from their niche. But I still would want to give them house room, because I am sure they entertain and enlighten many other members, who are by definition my friends and so might at any moment be my guests.

The Library also welcomes the wandering stranger; the lot of us form, in fact, an extended family, with visitors leavening the mass. Many of us are friends, and within the precincts those who are not nonetheless nod and smile at one another as a matter of course. Part of this amiability, I must say, is due to the soothing influence of clear signs everywhere and intelligent arrangements, from the terminals downstairs to the classification and distribution of our riches among the stacks upstairs and below ground. Frustration is not a word in use; it is understood only by the oldest members. For there used to be an impediment to health and happiness—the elevator. It used to raise one's blood pressure, because it so often refused to raise anything else. But now, after an expensive course of Botox and liposuctions, it is as sleek and smooth and responsive as the most impatient fanatic for book knowledge could demand.

In sum, if The New York Society Library did not exist, it would have to be invented, and right now, when overnight bank loans are close to being available at zero interest, the invention might remain a patent on paper; no company whose CEO is still at large would take it up for production in earnest. Let us then, after 250 years, bless and thank those bookish Anglo-Dutch burghers of 1754.