About Us

The New York Society Library at Broadway and Leonard Street in 1840.
The New York Society Library at Broadway and Leonard Street in 1840.

New York: Past, Present and Future

E. Porter Belden (1849)

The New-York Society Library is the oldest public library of the kind in the United States. It originated in an institution, founded in 1700, during the administration of the Earl of Bellamont, and denominated "The Public Library of New-York." Various records occur on the minutes of the Common Council relative to this library; the most important of which is the mention of the bequest of the Rev. Dr. Millington, Rector of Newington, England, who gave 1000 volumes to "the society for the promotion of Christian knowledge," "for the use of the clergy and gentlemen of New-York and the neighboring providences."

In 1754, a number of gentlemen undertook to establish a library, which they designated "The New-York Society Library." The old "Public Library" having fallen into disuse, the trustees obtained permission from the corporation of the city to engraft their collection on the former. The new library was in successful operation, when the war of the Revolution arrested its progress, and scattered many of its treasures beyond the reach of recovery. But, after the restoration of peace, it was re-established. In 1794, we find the society in possession of a building, evincing much architectural taste, situated in Nassau-street, opposite the Middle Dutch church. Here, until the crowding demands of commerce drove it further from her domains, the library continued to dispense its benefits, and to accumulate gradually a collection now become of inappropriate value.

In 1840, the society entered upon a new phase in its progress, by the completion of its present edifice on the corner of Broadway and Leonard-street. This building, 100 feet long, by 60 wide, is constructed of finely-cut brown sand stone, and presents on Broadway a chaste facade of Ionic columns. On passing the structure, the eye is arrested by its bold and massive front, while the beauty of its proportions, and its highly finished masonry, elicit the approbations of good taste and critical observation. The cost of the ground, building and furniture was $188,000.

The society numbers over 1,000 members, and possesses a library of about 40,000 volumes. The terms of membership require a payment of $25 for a share, liable to an annual charge of six dollars.