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From The New York Society Library: 250 Years

The New York Society Library: 250 Years (2004)

This Book is Dedicated to Mark Piel, Librarian from 1978 to 2004, with affection and gratitude for his devoted and scholarly stewardship of The New York Society Library for a tenth of its 250 years.


Preface, by William Dean

The New York Society Library: 250 years is a spirited record both of great moments and modest happenings. One of these great moments occurred in 1754, when an idealistic and energetic group of citizens created its first "Publick Library [that] would be very useful, as well as ornamental to this city."

During the five years that New York was the federal capital (from 1784 to 1789), the Library served as the first Library of Congress. President George Washington, Vice President John Adams, Chief Justice John Jay, and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton were among the nation's leaders who borrowed books from the library.

In 1843 at Ralph Waldo Emerson's lecture series in the Library, Walt Whitman and Emerson met. A few years later, with the publication of Leaves of Grass, Emerson would declare Whitman "the great American poet." Henry David Thoreau, visiting the city in 1843, wrote that he was allowed by the Librarian to "take out some untake-out-able books, which I was threatening to read on the spot." Herman Melville borrowed William Scoresby's An account of the Arctic Regions with a History and Description of the Northern Whale-Fishery as a source for Moby-Dick.

But what truly brings the library to life are the more modest happenings, stories told through the letters and minutes preserved in the archives: Trustees grumpily admonishing members about books "frequently blotted, scribbled in, and torn by children"; or a subscriber writing apologetically to a librarian, "A young dog of mine unbeknownst to anybody chewed the cover and I fear the binding is ruined."

In current tributes to the Library, a member writes lovingly how "the pear trees outside the reading room's long windows dazzled in the spring." Another, deep in the stacks, recalls "turning on the lights with their ticking timers" and searching for novels not yet read.

The Library is deeply indebted to trustees Henry S.F. Cooper Jr. and Jenny Lawrence, who mined the archives to compile this commemorative volume, and to Byron Bell, whose line drawings in the Tributes section are so evocative of the Library. Librarian Mark Piel and staff member Sara Holliday spent many hours in research, fact-checking, editing, and proofreading. We are indebted to staff member Harriet Shapiro and to researchers Carol Barnette and Edmée Reit for their help as well. This book would never have been realized without their exhaustive efforts. Designer John Bernstein creatively integrated the disparate elements of the manuscript into an elegant whole. Finally, we are grateful to David Ortiz, who rephotographed the illustrations, and to Jim Dow, who gave us carte blanche to use the photographs of the Library in the last section.

- William J. Dean,
Chairman, Board of Trustees



In this anthology of extracts from the archives of The New York Society Library, letters, minutes, memos, and articles follow, chronologically, essays on each of the Library's homes. Together with tributes from current members, these accounts provide a portrait of the Library in the voices of many of the people who have been closest to it during its first quarter-millennium. It is not meant to be a history. There are already two admirable ones about our institution: History of the New York Society Library, by Austin Baxter Keep, which covers its first 105 years, and Books and People: Five Decades of New York's Oldest Library, by Marion King, a look at the fifty years leading up to the Library's bicentennial in 1954. The editors of this anthology are indebted to both those books. If Austin Baxter Keep in 1904 was ponderous and authoritative, and if Marion King in 1954 was bright and lively (both in keeping with the tastes of their time), then this book is a sort of collage—kaleidoscopic bits like light from a prism—which may be more in tune with the complex, fragmented world of 2004.

Interestingly, the early letters, minutes, and memos tend to be more matter-of-fact and long-winded than later ones; beginning in the 1840s, perhaps earlier, the writing becomes breezier and more sprightly, a trend that continues to the present day. Hence, this anthology provides a 250-year chronology of the changing styles and sensibilities—even consciousness—among readers and writers in this city. One thing that remains eternally the same, though, uniting us with our 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century forebears, is the nature of the gripes and complaints. The member in the 18th century who was pounced on for scribbling in Library books, the man in the 19th century who objected to being accused of spilling coffee on books, the woman in the 20th century who apologized because her baby had ripped up the title page of a book, and the man in the late 20th century who objected to paying fines were all brothers and sisters under the skin. The collection is idiosyncratic and quirky, as it consists of material that amused or interested the editors; others would have taken a different cut the same mass of material. Nonetheless, this anthology—a sourcebook and celebration of our history—gives many odd insights into the Library's past. It is an attempt to chronicle how a library—all of whose books, according to an early member, could have fit into a wheelbarrow—sowed the first seeds of information and literature in a city that would become the cultural capital of our country. Since the middle of the 18th century, the Library and the city have helped each other prosper. And the Library today continues to enlighten and enliven the city, remaining at the heart of its cultural life—a strong central stem running 250 years back to the very roots of its intellectual life.

How seamlessly the following archival letters, memos, and articles blend into the tributes and reminiscences of today's writers. For 250 years and counting—root, branch, and leaf—we have been, and continue to be, a place where literature happens.

Henry S.F. Cooper Jr.
Jenny Lawrence
Trustees and Co-Editors


First Home: City Hall


In the spring of 1754, when the New York Society Library first drew its breath," as Austin Baxter Keep recorded in his 1908 history of the Library's first 150 years, the city of red-brick buildings and of 13,000 or so residents radiated less than a mile out from a cluster of piers and a line of fortifications at the tip of Manhattan Island. It was a busy port and market center. Contemporary historian William Smith Jr. wrote: "No Part of America is supplied with Markets abounding with greater Plenty and Variety."

Almost a century before, the British had seized control of the city from the Dutch and renamed it after James Stuart, Duke of York. The community was diverse, and there was a remarkable degree of religious toleration reflected in the many established churches. Whether sleighing in winter or boating and fishing in summer, New Yorkers enjoyed themselves, as English traveler, the Rev. Andrew Burnaby, D. D., observed on a visit to the city in 1756: "There are several houses, pleasantly situated upon East river, near New York, where it is common to have turtle-feasts: these happen once or twice in a week. Thirty or forty gentlemen and ladies meet and dine together, drink tea in the afternoon, fish and amuse themselves till evening, and then return home in Italian chaises, (the fashionable carriage in this and most parts of America...) a gentleman and lady in each chaise. In the way there is a bridge, about three miles distant from New York, which you always pass over as you return, called the Kissing-bridge; where it is a part of the etiquette to salute the lady who has put herself under your protection."

The city's leaders divided along landed or commercial interests. The Livingston and Morris families, controlling huge properties upstate, were for the most part Presbyterian and Whig, while the merchant elite of the city was dominated by Anglican families like the De Lanceys, Schuylers, Philipses, Van Cortlandts, Stuyvesants, Waltons, Bayards, and De Peysters. The so-called Corporation—the mayor, aldermen, and Common Council—was conducted out of City Hall at the head of Broad Street and the intersection of Nassau and Wall streets.

The year 1754 was significant for New Yorkers. Preoccupied with news of renewed skirmishing with the French that resulted in the French and Indian War, they sent delegates to the Albany Congress, at which Benjamin Franklin proposed a Plan of Union that was ultimately rejected by King George but gave the colonists a taste of independence. This was the year Kings College was founded and the New York Society Library.

Although a thriving commercial town, it lacked "a spirit of inquiry among the people." This was the opinion of William Livingston, John Morin Scott, and William Smith Jr., who had graduated from Yale and come to apprentice in the legal profession under the most famous lawyers of the day, James Alexander and William Smith Sr. The "triumvirate," as they were known, held a weekly "Society for Improving themselves in Useful Knowledge" and published a journal, the Independent Reflector, to promote their views. Livingston wrote a Yale friend: "It is indeed prodigious that in so populous a City a few Gentlemen have any relish for learning. Sensuality has devoured all greatness of soul and scarce one in a thousand is even disposed to talk serious." In March, 1754, according to William Smith Jr.'s contemporary history, a group of six friends met and discussed an organization with "an incorporation by royal charter and the erection of an edifice, at some future day, a Museum and an Observatory, as well as a Library."

The idea—at least the library part—caught on. On April 8, one of the city's two weekly newspapers, Hugh Gaines's New-York Mercury, reported: "A Subscription is now on Foot, and carried on with great Spirit, in order to raise Money for erecting and maintaining a publick Library in this city; and we hear that not less than 70 Gentlemen have already subscribed Five Pounds Principal, and Ten Shillings per Annum, for that Purpose. We made no doubt but a Scheme of this nature, so well calculated for promoting Literature, will meet with due encouragement from all who wish the Happiness of the rising Generation." On April 29, the New York Post-Boy noted that the subscribers to the Public Library met and elected twelve trustees. Sectarium wrangles resulted in only three of the original group becoming trusteesRobert R. Livingston, William Livingston, and William Alexander. Anglican and loyalist interests were represented among the new trustees, including lieutenant-governor James De Lancey, the city's attorney general Joseph Murray, and Trinity Church's rector, the Reverend Henry Barclay. By October, the Common Council allowed the New York Society Library to keep their books in the "Library Room" in City Hall. The Corporation's library already comprised a donation in 1713 of 238 volumes from the Rev. John Sharpe, Chaplain to His Majesty's forces in the Province of New York, for a "Publick Library," and a bequest in 1728 of 1642 books from Rev. Dr. John Millington that came by way of the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.

The Library occupied a second-floor room in the northwest corner of City Hall. It was a brick building two stories high (a third story would be added in 1766) that Smith described in his 1856 history as "in the Shape of an Oblong, winged with one at Each End, at right Angles with the first. The Floor below is an open Walk, except two Jails and the Jailor's Apartments. The Cellar underneath is a Dungeon, and the Garret above a common Prison....The West Wing, on the same Floor forms the Council room and a Library; and in the Space between the Ends, the Supreme Court is ordinarily held." That same October, the Library's first shipment of books arrived on Capt. Miller after 42 days at sea. An article in the Mercury expressed the hope that "New-York, now she has an Opportunity, will show that she comes not short of the other Provinces, in Men of excellent Genius, who, by cultivating the Talents of Nature, will take off that Reflection cast on us by the neighbouring Colonies, of being an ignorant People." Shortly thereafter, the Library's first printed catalogue of the collection was published by Hugh Gaine of "about 700 volumes of new, well chosen, books." Subsequent catalogues of the collection were published every few years until 1850.

Lieutenant-governor Cadwallader Colden blocked the first attempt at incorporation. He had succeeded James De Lancey after his untimely death in 1760 and hated "those Presbyterian lawyers." In 1772, Samuel Jones, the Library's treasurer at the time, submitted a charter that was signed by Governor William Tryon that November. The charter had 59 subscribers signatures, including that of Anne Waddell, widow of one of the original members. Although it would be almost two hundred years before women joined the board, the Library appeared to welcome women members—not like the Boston Athenaeum that ruled "as undesirable, that a modest young woman should have anything to do with the corrupter portions of the polite literature. A considerable portion of a general library should be to her a sealed book."

The last catalogue issued before the Revolution listed 1,291 volumes, increased by later purchases bringing the number to 1500. Then, from 1774 to 1888, the Library suspended operations. In the archives, the fourteen-year period is preserved on a sheet of paper. On one side, dated May 9, 1774, is the treasurer's account, a device for a seal to be cut, shares to be transferred, and a note that "Mr. Ketteltass ordered to purchase one dozen Winsor chairs for the use of the Library." A note on the other side reads, "The accidents of the late war having nearly destroyed the former Library, no meeting of the proprietors was held from the last Tuesday in April 1774 until Tuesday ye 20 December 1788."

The Revolution devastated the city. In 1776 at the Battle of Long Island, the British army of 25,000 defeated General Washington's ragtag army of 18,000 and occupied New York for the duration of the war, becoming the Tory capital of American. A series of fires destroyed much of the city and, according to one resident, it was "a most dirty, desolate, and wretched place." Library trustee John Pintard saw that "British soldiers were in the habit of carrying away the books in their knapsacks, and bartering them for grog."

With peace in 1783, and the evacuation of the Tories, the city began to recoup its losses. The Library survived. Six hundred volumes were found in a room in St. Paqul's Chapel. There was a notice in the New-York Packet for February 16, 1784, entitled "BOOKS" and signed by Dr. Samuel Bard "by order of the Trustees." "SUCH PERSONS who have in their possession any of the BOOKS belonging to the NEW-YORK SOCIETY LIBRARY are requested to send them to Peter Kettletas, No. Wall-Street, Walter Rutherford, No. Broad-way, Samuel Bard, No. 44, Broad-street, or Samuel L. Mitchill, No. 50, Water-street. Six hundred volumes were found in a room in St. Paul's Chapel.

In 1785 New York became the federal capital for five years. Major Charles L'Enfant remodeled City Hall for $65,000 to accommodate Congress while the Corporation moved the city's government to Exchange Place. Congress was pleased with its accommodations, but even then New York street traffic created such a din that the Common Council ordered chains suspended across the street during congressional business hours to stop the noisy flow of carts and carriages. The Library occupied a room on the third floor, becoming the first Library of Congress. President Washington, Vice-President John Adams, and especially Chief Justice John Jay were among the borrowers. All legislators had Library privileges. The collection consisted of 3100 books and 239 "right" holders including such people as Governor George Clinton, Mayor James Duane, and Secretary of the Treasury and author of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton. Charging ledgers from this period show that Hamilton took out Goethe's Eleonora, that his nemesis and duelist, Aaron Burr, over a number of years borrowed Revolutions in Geneva, a volume of Swift, Modern Universal History, and lighter reading such as Kentish Curate, Mysterious Husband, and False Friend. Rufus King, appointed U.S. Senator and later minister to Britain, took out Montesquieu as well as books on public speaking and navigation.

In August 1790, only a little over a year after the building was remodeled, the Federal government moved to Philadelphia, and the Common Council, the courts, and city government returned to City Hall. The Library's collections increased. The New-York Magazine; or, Literary Repository, in June, 1791, says: "The cause of science and literature at length arrested the public attention, nor has the call been in vain. A handsome subscription list was obtained, which has enable the Trustees of the New-York Society Library to form a collection of upwards of four thousand volumes, within two years."

The trustees were the city's civic leaders, active not only in the Library but in many other organizations. John Pintard founded the New-York Historical Society but also devoted his energies to the American Museum, the Sailors' Snug Habor, the American Bible Society, the General Theological Seminary, the Society for the Relief of the Destitute, and the public school system. Dr. Benjamin Moore was president of Columbia, renamed since Kings College's destruction during the Revolution. Dr. Samuel Bard founded Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. In a letter to his daughter in July, 1789, Dr. Bard refers to the Library: "When you return home, you will never want proper Books, as we have 2000 Volumes, among which are a great many very valuable, & it will annually receive an addition of the best new publications."

The Library's 1793 Catalogue listed 892 members and 5,000 volumes. Its prospects never seemed better, and in March, the trustees leased two lots belonging to Joseph Winter on Nassau Street and commenced building. Although authorized not to spend more than $5,000, the Library faced an escalation of costs that required the trustees to borrow $750 from the newly created Bank of New York, finishing the building "in a square form instead of an Oval as formerly proposed." Thus, from the start of occupancy, which lasted just over forty years, the trustees were trying to find ways to pay off their debt.

In June, 1795, John Forbes, the 19-year-old Scotsman who had just become the librarian, allowed members to keep their books from June 6 until the 15th and return them to the new location. The Nassau Street site, only five blocks from City Hall, was its first official building and its home until 1836.


Second Home: Nassau Street


Across the street from the Dutch Reformed Church was the New York Society Library's new building at 16 Nassau Street (the number was later changed to 33) between Cedar and Liberty. It was June 1795. Its façade extended for 30 feet along Nassau, 60 feet behind, and rose two stories. The Library occupied the second floor in a big, high-roofed room. Bookcases with wire network doors lined the sides, and a gallery surmounted three long windows at either end. Librarian John Forbes's eldest son, Phillip, who had grown up in the street-level apartments, left this account of his childhood home:

"The building was of brown free-stone, brick interior, with three quarter Corinthian columns, resting on a projecting basement, on which an ornamental iron balustrade formed a favorite balcony, where the younger frequenters of the Library were fond of viewing the unobstructed scenery of the vicinity, consisting of the garden of Mr. Winter, with its fine grapery and overhanging fruit-trees, the venerable specimen of low Dutch church architecture opposite, whose lofty peaked roof, massive gables, substantial tower, belfry, and cupola, surmounted by its gilt rooster, still remain, a relic, alas!....The view southward gave a vista of that fine, wide, well-built and handsomely planted avenue, Broad street, then still the leading quarter of the early aristocracy of the town.

"The interior of the Library building was homely, but attractive from its intrinsic comforts. Several offices filled its first story, variously occupied from time to time, with a predominance, however, of legal tenantry. The access to the principal floor was by means of a flight of stairs, conspicuously placed in the centre of the building, and forming in fact the leading feature in its structure. This imposing peculiarity, which by-the-by seems to have been reverently observed as a model for future edifices dedicated to the same liberal objects, monopolized the best part of two stories, and contributed not a little towards impressing the public with a high sense of the importance of the place they were approaching."

The Federal Census of 1800 recorded New York's population as more than 60,000 and by 1809, just under 100,000. The city extended to 31st Street. "The whole of this space is not yet covered with buildings, but the greater proportion is," according to the 1818 Blunt's Stranger's Guide to the City of New-York. An English traveler in 1803, John Lambert, noted that "a public library is established at New York, which consists of about ten thousand volumes, many of them rare and valuable books." He counted 33 churches, 5 banks, and 9 insurance companies. He even calculated the annual deaths to yellow fever—1804, 2,064 and 1806, 2,252. Indeed, during the yellow fever epidemic of 1803, Librarian Forbes shut the library from September 14 to November 8.

In 1809, the second centenary anniversary of Henry Hudson's discovery of America, the city was the largest in the U.S. In the same year, Washington Irving published his mock history of the city, supposedly written by Diedrich Knickerbocker. He call New York "Gotham," after an English town whose citizens avoided taxes by pretending insanity. The name took hold.

As the population expanded, so did the city, moving northwards and spanning the area between the Hudson and East rivers. Between 1820 and 1830, about 4,000 immigrants a year arrived in New York. Over the next years, immigration increased exponentially to 14,000 in 1830 and to almost 33,000 in 1835. The Corporation outgrew City Hall and by 1812, the government had moved into its new building, which still stands on Broadway and Park Row more than a mile uptown. In 1811, when the Randel Survey was published, dividing Manhattan above 14th Street into a giant grid system as far north as 155th Street, the commissioners of the plan defended their work because a city "is to be composed principally of the habitations of men," and that straight-sided and right-angled houses were the most economical and convenient for living. The War of 1812 was a setback to maritime trade but with peace, it quickly recovered. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 transformed the city into a national economic and financial center. It was the final destination for goods and raw materials from the interior of the country, quickly being knit together by railroads and steamships.

According to the Library's historian, Austin Baxter Keep, the period from 1814 to 1830 "may fairly be characterized as an age of foundations." The same group of civic leaders that served the Library participated in many other New York institutions. Indeed, the New York Institution of Learned and Scientific Establishments, created by Library trustee John Pintard, was an umbrella organization that occupied City Hall after the federal government had gone. Had the Library not already committed to the Nassau Street property, the trustees would have joined the New York Institution, which included the New-York Historical Society, the Academy of Fine Arts, Scudder's Museum, the U. S. Military and Philosophical Society of New York, the United Society of Journeymen Shipwrights and Caulkers, the Bible Society, and so on. When the new City Hall opened 1812 and officials planned to demolish the old hall, the New York Institution petitioned and won from the Common Council municipal space (at one peppercorn a year) in the old Almshouse in City Hall Park. By 1830, however, the city ended their patronage and only the New-York Historical Society and the Lyceum of Natural History (that became the New York Academy of Science) survived. By 1830, municipal patronage of cultural organizations had ended, as public opinion regarded these institutions as elitist.

Continuity of leadership characterizes the period. John Forbes served as librarian from 1793 to his death in 1824. Within a year, his son Phillip succeeded him. Trustees also served for long terms, and these men were often younger relatives of older members, like Gulian C. Verplanck, the son of a Library trustee and himself one for almost sixty years, Peter Augustus Jay, John Jay's son, and David S. Jones, son of the Library's first treasurer Samuel Jones. Livingstons, Verplancks, Crugers, Clarksons, Bards, and other family names show up as members and trustees from generation to generation. Among the subscribers was Albert Gallatin in 1828, who took out maps and atlases "for the U.S. to lay before the friendly Sovereign to determine the Northeast boundary between the U. S. and Britain." The receipt bears the note that "these maps were never returned." In 1829, Charles King, a Library trustee and later president of Columbia, and trustee Clement C. Moore had been appointed to confer with the Library Board on a plan to erect a building for the Library on college grounds. Nothing came of it.

Books had been catalogued by hand since the 1760s on folio sheets bound together with pale blue ribbon. The Catalogue of 1813 listed 542 subscribers and 12,500 volumes, "comprising the works of the most eminent authors, ancient and modern; many of them in choice and splendid editions." The collection grew not only through annual purchases but also through the donation of private collections. In 1813, the Library acquired 270 of the 1000-volume library of John Winthrop (1606-1676), the father of American chemistry and founder of Connecticut, who owned the largest scientific library in the colonies. In 1827, Lorenzo Da Ponte, poet, musician, and professor of Italian at Columbia, donated 600 Italian volumes to the Library so that his pupils and members of the Italian Library Society he had founded might have free use of the Library. By 1832, the collection was 16,000 volumes.

As the city expanded in population and wealth, the small, interconnected intellectual elite that resided near the Library scattered to other neighborhoods. While the trustees were open to offers to move the Library, they were hampered by debt, their initial petitions for funds from the Common Council unheeded. Instead, back in 1795 to finish construction, they had borrowed $3,000 from Alexander Hamilton's new Bank of New York and had borrowed more in 1811 to buy Mr. Winter's lot on which their building stood. This debt would limit their flexibility for years to come. At the start of the sojourn on Nassau Street, businessmen and merchants, who walked to their offices, returning home for breakfast at 8:00 a.m., the midday meal at 3:00 p.m., and dinner at 9:00 p.m., could stop in at the Library en route, as could their wives. These families moved uptown, however, and the Library became a backwater.

In a January 1827 editorial note in the Evening Post, the writer described this "most ancient public library in the statethe third for size and value in the United States" as possessing "above 18,000 volumes, many of which are the most rare and valuable description," but he also observes the building's being "so badly situated." Location and inflexibility may explain the founding, in January, 1824, of a rival institution, the New York Athenaeum. Based on Liverpool's model, it planned to offer a reference library, a reading room of newspapers and magazines, a laboratory for scientific experiments, a cabinet or museum, and a lecture department. A number of Library trustees—Peter A. Jay, Jonathan M. Wainwright, James Renwick—were involved in setting up this "Public Institution for the cultivation of Literature and Science, and by which a taste for such pursuits might be awakened and preserved among our citizens." Women were welcomed—that they "thus be enabled to pursue studies, and investigate subjects, from which, by the present system of education, they are excluded."

For a few years, the organization thrived. Increasingly, however, they ran into financial difficulties and began to approach the Library to join "in amicable vicinage." In June, 1835, representatives of the Library and the Athenaeum signed a contract, paying $47,500 to Mr. Ebenezer Clark for two lots at Broadway at Leonard. By February 1836, the Library had sold the Nassau Street building and lot for $44,200 and leased the Mechanics' Society's building to house their collections while construction of the new building got underway.

The plan was that the two institutions would share the building costs but early on, it was evident that the Athenaeum couldn't come up with enough money to fund their portion. The Library, after long negotiations, agreed to absorb the Athenaeum's collections and its members. The last recorded meeting of Athenaeum directors was in April, 1839. It failed, according to Keep, because of "petty jealousies" and "the constant shifting of residential centers, in the rapid expansion of the city." "The Athenaeum," continued Keep, "was fondly expected to be a sort of neighborhood or social club among the leading people of the community, a hope dissipated by the swiftly advanced tide of business. So the great majority of its members transferred allegiance to the Society Library."

This consolidation marked a new phase for the Library. It had a new home and an expanded membership in a city alive with intellectual and social ferment. For the two lots on the east side of Broadway, bounded by Leonard Street and Catherine Lane, there was "no conceivable combination of circumstances can ever take from property on Broadway its power of commanding a remunerating revenue," read the joint report. The Library could count on increasing the rents then accruing from unoccupied rooms from a paltry $600 to "three times this amount." Further, "no where else on that magnificent avenue" could two such choice lots be procured. In 1840, the Library would be moving into its third home.


Third Home: Broadway at Leonard


On September 18, 1839, the Evening Post reported: "The front of the new building in Broadway near Leonard street, erected to contain the New York Library will do no honor to the architectural taste of this city. The row of red sandstone columns which stand close to the wall and support nothing, are useless as members of the building, and preposterous as ornaments. Columns should never be employed but to support a roof, their original purpose." This was the work of Englishman Frederic Diaper, who emigrated to New York about 1835 and became one of the most prominent architects of Greek Revival commercial architecture in the mid-nineteenth century.

Others were more complimentary. The building, 100 feet long by 60 wide, was constructed of brown freestone with a façade of Ionic columns. The New Yorker of November 28, 1840, described the interior:

"The New York Society Library has lately been re-opened in its new and beautiful edifice...a new ornament of our principal avenue. The basement floor is divided into stores and offices. A spacious hall occupies the middle of the building. The visitor enters this and ascends a broad flight of stairs, which leads to the reading room in the rear. This is a lofty and well proportioned apartment, with windows at each end, and in it are four commodious tables covered with rich food for the literary appetite. One contains the city journals; another those from different parts of the United States; and the other two are loaded with English and American periodicalsweekly, monthly and quarterly; literary, scientific, religious and political. This room, brilliantly lighted at night, with its soft carpets deadening the sound of footsteps, its cushioned arm chairs, and its rich supplies of periodicals, renewed by every steamship, forms the perfection of literary luxury. From a landing place upon the grand staircase two flights turn and ascend to the book room, which is a spacious apartment in the front of the building, with two rows of columns dividing it, and formed into alcoves by the cases which contain the books, arranged in double ranks. The librarian's desk faces the entrance. Connecting the reading room and the book room are two smaller apartments, used as conversation parlors for those authors who desire to pursue their investigations with their authorities around them, or who wish to make new books on old Burton's recipe, 'as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring out of one vessel into another.' A lecture room, arranged on the commodious plan of ascending and circular seats, is situated in the rear of the basement, and the upper stories are occupied by the National Academy of Design."

Philip Forbes, the eldest son of Librarian John Forbes, assumed librarian duties a year or so after his father's death in 1824 and continued as librarian during its twelve years at the Broadway site, resigning in 1855. The Catalogue of 1838, like the catalogues of 1813, 1825, and the final one in 1850, gave a contemporary portrait of the Library. The collection consisted of 25,000 volumes, broken down into an "Alphabetical Catalogue" and "Analytical Catalogue." Books were divided into fourteen categories, such as "Theology," "Law," "Science," "Belles Lettres," and "Novels."

Novels were a controversial, but had increased by only 155 since the 1825 Catalogue and now totaled 724. Perhaps members had changed their reading predilections since the article in the Evening Post for May 1, 1833: "What's the design of a Public Library? Not, surely to afford facilities for novel reading, and serve as an auxiliary for the dissemination of the evanescent, generally trifling, and too often vapid periodical literature of the day? No; but to provide the studious with means of access to works not within ordinary reach."

The Board was increased to fifteen trustees from twelve. Their terms were no less impressive than in previous eras; as historian Keep describes it, "a natural drawing together of congenial minds." These were lawyers, merchants, preachers, publishers, and writers, including a brief term of Washington Irving, from 1835-37. Among the members were philanthropist Peter Cooper, political leader Samuel Jones Tilden, historian George Bancroft, Columbia University president William A. Duer, Mechanics Institute founder Thomas R. Mercein, and merchant Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt, grandfather of Theodore Roosevelt.

In the April 30, 1840, the American reported: "The rooms, like the exterior are chaste in style, spacious in extent, and [the building] now embraces a reading-room and a lecture-room." With the National Academy of Design renting the top floor, the building proved to be a cultural draw. In November, 1840, Thomas Cole exhibited "The Voyage of Life" at the National Academy of Design, commissioned by banker Samuel Ward, father of Julia Ward Howe who wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." In February, 1842, Ralph Waldo Emerson began a series of six lectures on "The Times," at the Society Library. The lecture room, "arranged on the commodious plan of ascending and circular seats" and "situated in the rear of the basement" or ground floor, accommodated as many as 400. In his journal, Emerson noted: "18 March. Home from New York where I read six lectures on the Times viz. Introductory; The Poet; The Conservative; The Transcendentalist; Manners; Prospects. They were (given) read in the "Society Library", were attended by 3 or 400 persons, and after all expenses were paid yielded me about 200 dollars .My Lectures had about the same reception there as elsewhere: very fine & poetical but a little puzzling. One thought it "as good as a kaleidoscope". Another, a good Staten Islander, would go hear, "for he had heard I was a rattler."

Henry James, the philosopher and father of William and Henry James (grandfather of Library Trustee Henry James, 1933-36), attended all six lectures and wrote Emerson: "I listened to your address this evening, and as my bosom glowed with many a true word that fell from your lips I felt ere long fully assured that before me I beheld a man who in very truth was seeing the realities of things and let me once feel the cordial grasp of a fellow pilgrim and remember for long days the cheering Godspeed and the ringing laugh with which he bounded on from my sight at parting." Their friendship dated from this time. Edgar Allan Poe gave a series of lectures on "Poets and Poetry of America" at the Library during the winter of 1845. On March 2, 1845, The New York Herald commented: "There was a goodly muster of the literati and the would-bes of this city on Friday evening, at the Society Library, to hear Mr. E. A. Poe deliver a lecture on this subject. More than one of them appeared to wince under the severity of his remarks, which were not a few; the newspaper press, the monthly magazines, and the quarterlies came in alike for a meed of his censure, as being venal, ignorant, and entirely unfit to form a judgment on the most humblest [sic] productions of the writers of this countryóof course, his own included."

Other lecture-room rentals listed Mrs. Fanny Kemble (who cancelled after the first readings because of the acoustics), magician and ventriloquist Signor Blitz, the American Daguerre Association, Campbell's Minstrels (also called the Ethiopian Melodists), and the Swiss Bell Ringers.

A Visitors' Book, kept from 1837-1855, showed the Library as a tourist destination for visitors to the city: Prince Bonaparte (the young Napoleon III, in temporary exile in America), Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, James Fenimore Cooper (who afterward became a member), Francis Parkman, W. Ellery Channing, Daniel Webster, Charles Sumner, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Josiah Quincy, and George Bancroft.

Charging ledgers from this period show that Herman Melville took out Bougainville's Voyage Around the World in January 1848, Scoresby's Arctic Regions and North Whale Fishery in April 1850. Presumably, these books supplied important material for Melville that he incorporated into Moby Dick, published in 1851.

Meanwhile the city kept growing. In 1842, the forty-mile Croton Aqueduct was completed to the distributing reservoir at 42nd Street, supplying New Yorkers with available drinking water. Also in 1842, Samuel F. B. Morse supervised the laying of a telegraph cable connecting Manhattan and Governor's Island. Between 1840 and 1856, over 3 million immigrants entered through the port of New York. It was also where many embarked for California's gold fields in 1848-49. Steam trains had been introduced in 1834, and by the 1850s, a line ran up Sixth Avenue from Barclay Street to Central Park, then under construction. New Yorkers moved "uptown." By 1848, some residences had been built on Union and Madison squares, and Fifth Avenue between 14th and 23rd. In the fall of 1850, "Swedish Nightingale," Jenny Lind appeared in Castle Garden for a concert tour. In 1853, the first world's fair, the Crystal Palace Exhibition, opened at the Reservoir Square locationthen the northernmost bounds of the city at 42nd and Sixth Avenue. After the fair closed in 1854, it could be leased for speaking occasions. In 1858 it burned to the ground.

Because of revenue derived from its galleries, lecture hall, and stores in the Broadway building, the Library had been taxed by the city. These legal wrangles started in 1838 when the Library absorbed the New York Athenaeum, and were finally resolved in January, 1856. The Library defended itself as a public institution and won. The lawyer for the city gave the verdict: "The fact that the privileges of the Society Library were subject to certain yearly charges did not alter its public character, as they were not imposed as a source of gain or profit, being no more than sufficient to defray the necessary expenses of keeping, preserving and supplying the Library. Though, as a corporation, it was private, in its uses and its objects it is public, just like railway companies, which are of such a public character that the legislature may delegate to them the right of eminent domain."

In November, 1850, the Library received a legacy of $5,000 from the estate of Miss Elizabeth Demilt, its first. The money went toward the reduction of the steadily accumulating debt. On December 18, 1852, the Library sold the Broadway property for $110,000 to Samuel F. Appleton of Appleton Publishers Inc., moving into temporary quarters in the second story of the Bible House at Third Avenue and Astor Place, before occupying its new building on University Place.

In May, 1853, Mrs. Adeline E. Schermerhorn, widow of Peter Augustus Schermerhorn, a former Trustee, had offered three lots next door to her for $18,650. The conditions were: not to erect within 40 feet of the front of the premises "any building save of brick or stone of at least two stories in height," nor to "erect, permit or suffer upon the said premises or any part thereof of any public school, theatre, or other place for public amusement, or any other place for any other trade, business or occupation dangerous, noxious or offensive to neighbouring inhabitants."

In April, 1856, the building was finished at a cost of $55,560. This would be the Library's home for the next eighty years.


Fourth Home: University Place


The architectural firm of T. Thomas & Son designed the new Society Library on University Place in 1853. An Englishman, Thomas emigrated to New York, establishing a successful practice with his son Griffith. Among their works was the old Astor Library on Lafayette Place. Griffith Thomas was said to have designed an average of at least three brownstone and iron buildings on each block on Fifth Avenue as far north as Central Park.

The new location was almost three miles north of Broadway and Leonard. When the Library moved its collection of 35,000 volumes out of four years of storage in the Bible House at Astor and 3rd Avenue to University Place, it would not move again for eighty-one years. The building costs had been $55,560 and with the land, the total expenditures amounted to about $75,000.

Valentine's Manual for 1856 described the "new edifice" as having "fifty-two feet front, leaving a space unoccupied on each side, so as to give light by windows to the interior. Toward the rear, however, the building spreads out and covers the whole width of the lot [104 feet]. The front is in the Italian style of architecture. The entrance is ornamented with coupled Corinthian pilasters, supporting the entablature, over which is a balustrade inclosing a small balcony. The middle window contains a triple window with Corinthian pilasters and entablature, in the frieze of which is the inscription 'Founded A.D. 1754.' Over the windows are stone panels. Those in the side divisions are filled with ornaments. The one over the middle window contains the name of the building, 'Society Library.'

"On entering the front door, the visitor finds himself in a hall forty-seven feet long and twelve wide, handsomely paved with tessalated pavement. On the left hand is a comfortable room for a ladies' reading room, sixteen feet by thirty. A similar room on the right is used as a conversation room. At the end of the hall are folding doors opening into the large reading room, thirty-one feet by seventy-three, well lighted and well furnished with papers and periodicals. In the hall, near the entrance to the large reading room, an easy flight of stairs leads to the library, which offers to view a noble apartment, two galleries rising above and receding as they rise, leading the eye up to the oblong dome of the roof, that with its fine large skylight sends down a flood of light on all below. The galleries are also divided into alcoves, and the whole building most conveniently and comfortably arranged, affording room for 100,000 volumes."

In these decades, the city's population went from more than 800,000 in the Census of 1860 to almost 2 million in 1940. The period is roughly framed by New York's two world fairs, the first in 1853-54 in the Crystal Palace at what is now Bryant Park, then the very northern edge of the city, and the second in 1939-40 in Flushing Meadows, Queens, reflecting the vaste spread of the five-borough megacity of Greater New York. The Civil War took its toll on New York, as did Boss Tweed's regime in the 1870s. During World War I, more than 1.5 million men left New York by sea for the battlefields of Europe, and in 1918, the city lost more than 12,500 to influenza. The crash of the Stock Market and the Great Depression capped the era. The city acquired such landmarks as the Booklyn Bridge in 1883 and the Statue of Liberty in 1886. By 1931, it had three of the tallest buildings in the world, the 792-foot Woolworth Building, the 1,046-foot Chrysler Building, and the 1,250-foot Empire State Building. The period spanned eighteen presidencies.

But in 1856, when the Library first moved into the University Place building, it was centrally located in New York's best residential neighborhood. The Library was free of debt, and its membership roll was at 1100. The move occasioned some important changes. Instead of an occasional catalogue of the collections, the last one being 1850, the trustees issued an annual report beginning in 1856. These yearly reports included the treasurer's report, lists of newspapers and magazines, yearly accessions of books, the names of trustees and officers, the terms of membership, and the hours of opening, thus documenting its year-by-year evolution.

Book donations were also recorded in the annual report, such as John James Audubon's Birds of America, twelve folio volumes of photographs of paintings of old Italian masters, and sixteen volumes of Gilbert White's Natural History of Selbourne. Through the generosity of trustee Robert Lenox Kennedy in 1868, the Library acquired 1,850 volumes from the old Circulating Library of James Hammond of Newport, Rhode Island, "a very curious memorial of the taste, manners, and lighter literature of the country from the period of 1783 until about or near 1830."

As for bequests of money, George B. Dorr left $3,000 in 1877 and, if an additional $45,000 was given within six months, the donation would increase to $5,000. Before the six months were out, $50,000 was given under the will of the late John C. Green, who had left a fortune of $4 million made in the old China trade. His bequest stipulated that one half of the income of the fund be applied to "the purchase and binding of works relating to the Fine Arts." Trustee Robert Lenox Kennedy, in memory of his friend, arranged for the creation of the "John C. Green Alcove" with its bronze tablet, clock, stained-glass window, and portrait of Green. In 1897, Charles H. Contoit left a bequest of $142,586.68. And from 1896 through 1897, thanks to F. Augustus Schermerhorn's contribution of the salaries of trained cataloguers for two years, a typewriter, cards, and cabinets, the Library was able to catalogue its collections according to the Charles A. Cutter "dictionary" method. This replaced the small, black, oblong loose-leaf books of the Leyden cataloguing system, in which there was a page for each book, arranged alphabetically by author. Before the Leyden system, the books were listed in large scrapbooks with the titles written on slips of paper pasted in alphabetically and far apart to allow for insertions.

The Library was under the stewardship of two librarians, Wentworth Sanborn Butler, who came to the Library as assistant in 1855, succeeded the volatile and controversial John MacMullen in 1857 and although officially retiring in 1895, continued as Librarian Emeritus until he died in 1910. Frank Bigelow took over the Head Librarian's duties in 1895, retiring in 1937 before the move uptown. As in years past, trustees served many years as well: Gulian C. Verplanck, Frederic de Peyster, Evert Duyckinck, W. Emlen Roosevelt, Henry C. Swords, F. Augustus Schermerhorn, Beverly Chew, and Clement Clark Moore. By the turn of the century, because the Library was "way down-town," the evening hours were eliminated. Broadway and Fifth Avenue below 13th Street were given over to businesses. In 1896, a high-rise office building went up in back of the Library, shutting out daylight from the first-floor reading room. This space became storage, and the reading room was moved to the second floor. In 1899, a telephone installed. In 1901, electric lighting replaced gaslight. For most of the Library's history, members were allowed only a single book at a time. After 1894, members were allowed two, then four. About the same time, the time-length of the loan was no longer based on the bulk of the book, but standardized to one week for new books, and three for others, with privileges of renewal. The delivery system, begun in 1882, by 1908 "our messengers," according to historian Keep, "carried 37,537 books, visiting 11,2888 residences and offices between No. 1 Broadway and 147th Street." In 1904, the Library marked its 150th anniversary (the sesquicentennial) with an exhibition of the Library's rarities. Its collections now numbered about 100,000 books.

Marion King took up where Keep left off, chronicling the Library's history in Books and People: Five Decades of New York's Oldest Library (1954). While Keep provided a very thorough account of the Library's history and formal portraits of its civic leaders, gleaned from newspapers, the catalogues, and annual reports, King recorded anecdotes, vivid pictures of members and their reading habits, and day-by-day events. With her clear eye and keen mind, King brought the regular Library routines to life. She began her tenure as a young desk assistant in 1907, and continued at the Library until her retirement in 1954. Indeed, King opened her book with a scene in the Librarian's office in 1907, an eight-by-ten-foot cubicle hidden away in the southeast corner of the second floor at 109 University Place. "The small nook was crowded with book- and pamphlet-laden shelves and tables, potbellied black iron stove with stovepipe, three or four chairs, and the desks of the Librarian, Frank B. Bigelow, and Librarian Emeritus, Wentworth S. Butler, intent and critical listeners." They were listeningand critiquingAustin Baxter Keep as he read out loud the manuscript of his History of the New York Society Library that would be published the following year.

By the time Marion King joined the staff, the heart of the Library was the second floor, covering the entire length and width of the building, with two balconies above it on each side and a skylight. The loan desk was at the east end of the room. "Deep alcoves on each side of the room," wrote King, "held the bookshelves and were lighted by four electric bulbs in each, hanging at the end of long wires which we carried with us up the tall ladders. The ladders sometimes swayed perilouslyI remember lurching one day as I came down and landing on the shoulder of the reader waiting below. It was Ellery Sedgwick then working in New York, in his pre-Atlantic days. Another time as I reached up I was petrified by the sight of a mouse sitting on the shelf above me. Just as I screamed it opened wide wings and flew over my heada bat."

Of members, she noted "several pairs of sisters: the Van Warts, tiny and charming, who also lived on 11th Street; the Misses Major from Second Avenue, then still a fine old neighborhood; the gentle, frail Miss Margaret Leupp, choosing books to read to her blind sister; and the very old Misses Sandford, straight out of Cranford, with bonnets tied under the chin, and long gray curls hanging at each side of their pacid old faces. Miss Alice came in once in a while to look over the English weeklies, and undid us by asking tremulously: "Will you please give me a couple of Punches?"

Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt became a Library regular and a friend to King after T.R. left the presidency, and the Roosevelts returned to New York from Washington in 1909. "Mrs. Roosevelt would run in often, sometimes bringing us baskets of flowers from Sagamore Hill. Refilling the baskets with carefully selected books for her husband and herself, she would speed off again, her high heels clicking down the long stairs. The Roosevelt children inherited their parents' predilection for reading and as they grew up and married, all had memberships of their own, but it was Mrs. Roosevelt who used the Library with unfailing constancy, interrupted only by her occasional travels."

Reading tastes were duly given year by year. In 1914, for example, "James Joyce received from America his first acclaim. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was first published in America by Ben Huebsch, and parts in the small English magazine, Egoist.... Somerset Maugham Of Human Bondage, John Buchan's The Thirty-nine Steps and Greenmantle. Erskine Childers The Riddle of the Sands. W. H. Hudson's Green Mansions."

One of the great events of those last years in University Place was the return of the original parchment charter, granted by King George III in 1772. It had disappeared sometime between 1840 and 1854, perhaps when the collections were moved from the Broadway building and stored at the Bible House for four years prior while University Place was under construction. "One day in 1913," King wrote, "Mr. Bigelow received a call from a young woman acting for an elderly friend, Mrs. Julia A. Kayser of Brooklyn, who had in her possession a large document bearing the name of this Library. She had inherited it from her brother who she thought had found it twenty years before in the drawer of an old desk he had bought at auction. Mr. Bigelow, unfolding the three-foot-square parchment, realized it was the long, mysteriously missing charter."

When the old Schermerhorn house, "the Library's red-brick and brownstone twin," had been replaced in 1928 by an apartment house, a large garage was in operation across the street, and most members had moved in the twenties, to apartments along Park Avenue and Fifth or to townhouses on Sutton Place at 57th overlooking the East River, the trustees became more and more eager to sell University Place and move uptown. Mrs. Charles C. Goodhue's generous bequest of $383,972 in 1917 and additional bequests increased the endowment sufficiently to permit the trustees to buy, in 1936, the 42.5-foot, five-story house of Mrs. John Shillito Rogers at 53 East 79th Street for $175,000.


Fifth Home: 53 East 79th Street


At the centennial celebration of the Library's charter on November 9, 1872, Dr. Thomas Ward envisioned the Library a century hence, "permanently established in some beautiful portion of our upper island. . . in an elegant and commodious edifice, with a spacious readingroom 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." Except for the parterre of flowers, Dr. Ward's centennial address proved prophetic.

In February 1917, Sarah Parker Goodhue died, leaving the Library a generous bequest—objets d'art, portraits, furniture, china, glass, silver, books, historical autographed letters, and funds amounting to almost $385,000. According to Marion King in her history of the Library, "the handsome legacy might have gone to the Metropolitan Museum but for Mrs. Goodhue's disapproval of an Englishman as curator, Sir Caspar Purdon-Clarke." Instead, Mrs. Goodhue asked that the money go toward a new Library building as a memorial to her husband, Charles Clarkson Goodhue, and to the "good and distinguished men of his name and ancestry in this country."

The gift was an incentive to the trustees to find a new location, but the move would not happen for another twenty years. In the meantime, Marion King, from behind the loan desk at University Place, provided vivid perspectives not only on Library affairs but also on changes in the city.


The Library Today






By Mark Piel

If one were to judge by much of the preceding text, it might seem that The New York Society Library has continuously suffered from damaged or lost books, disgruntled members and staff, squabbling trustees, and deteriorating buildings. However, another picture emerges from the variety of tributes referring to the uniqueness of the collection. The Library has from its beginning had "a Proper Collection of Books," as the 1754 New-York Mercury described it. How has this been created? As we have seen, it is the active accomplishment of past members and librarians who nurtured the organic growth, which as Coleridge says, "shapes as it develops from within." One must marvel at the intelligence at work over two centuries of these acquisitions. The Age of Book must never end.

Over time, few withdrawls have been made and so there is a vast accumulation of reading material here. So, too have the Library's historical records grown. I well remember the awe I experienced when my predecessor showed me the archives then stored on the top floor—a veritable lumber-room of trustees' minutes, correspondence, and circulation and business records going back to the earliest days. Without the guardianship of these materials, this book of record would not be possible.

Librarians, trustees, members gave themselves in their time and so have given generously to the Library's continuity into the future.

Vivat ispa biliotheca!


Officers of the New York Society Library



  • Hamilton Fish Armstrong (1944-1957)
  • Frederic R. King (1957-1966)
  • Arnold Whitridge (1966-1979)
  • Spencer Byard (1979-1985)
  • Henry S.F. Cooper Jr. (1985-1992)
  • William J. Dean (1992-)


  • Arthur J. Morris (1934-1965)
  • Walter Maynard (1965-1971)
  • Porter R. Chandler (1971-1972)
  • Joseph P. Geraghty (1972-1983)
  • James Q. Griffin (1984-)


  • Spencer Byard (1953-1979)
  • Henry S.F. Cooper Jr. (1979-1985)
  • Gordon R. Fairburn (1985-1993)
  • Anthony D. Knerr (1993-1995)
  • Charles G. Berry (1996-)


  • Sylvia Hilton (1954-1977)
  • Mark Piel (1978-2004)


We are not just handing out bibliotherapy here, or recreation, or even that ubiquitous commodity now called "information." The New York Society Library provides sustenance for those to whom books are as necessary for existence as air.

Jane Goldstein
Head of Circulation