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A Belief in Books: The 270th Anniversary Exhibition

Open to the public in The Assunta, Ignazio, Ada and Romano Peluso Exhibition Gallery
January 18-December 31, 2024

Established in 1754, the New York Society Library is the city's oldest cultural institution and one of the first libraries in the United States. The Library founders, all Enlightenment men committed to personal freedom, religious tolerance, and the separation of church and state, believed that a subscription library, open to all, would inevitably lead to a better society.

A Belief in Books addresses the fact that while Enlightenment thought demanded individual rights for white men, it also upheld the idea that slavery was part of the natural world order. Every aspect of New York’s economy relied on the slave trade, as did the fortune of every colonist, including the Library's founders. Only British ships with British goods could enter New York harbor, and the ships that carried books from London also carried enslaved Africans to the American and Caribbean colonies.

Books on display from the Library’s collection between 1754 and the outbreak of the Revolutionary War illustrate the wide variety of genres and titles read by Library members, including:

• Thomas Sheridan, British Education, or, The Source of the Disorders of Great Britain
• Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d'Argenville, The Theory and Practice of Gardening
The Lives of the Prince of the Illustrious House of Orange
• Tobias Smollett, The Complete History of England

The exhibition catalog contains essays by Director and Head Librarian Carolyn Waters, Special Collections Librarian Barbara Bieck, and historian and author Dr. Leslie M. Harris.

Find the downloadable press release here.

Learn more about the A Belief in Books opening reception, January 17, 2024

Coming Up: Leslie M. Harris, The New York Society Library in the Age of Slavery and Abolition

Thursday, February 22, 6:00 PM, Members' Room and Livestream | open to the public | free of charge | registration required
In this keynote event for our 270th anniversary exhibition, A Belief in Books, Dr. Leslie M. Harris speaks about the Library in the context of slavery and abolition, and about historical African American reading practices - print culture, reading rooms, and literary societies - in the absence of access to places like the Library.

A Belief in Books is dedicated to Harriet Shapiro.

This exhibition is generously supported by Elizabeth A.R. Brown and Ralph S. Brown, Jr., The Felicia Fund, Ada Peluso and Romano I. Peluso, The Hazen Polsky Foundation, The H.W. Wilson Foundation, and Humanities New York.

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