By Caren Rabinowitz
George Washington owes the New York Society Library approximately $300,000.00 in library fines. If you don’t believe me, the library is in the process of digitizing its original charging ledgers. You will be able to see Washington didn’t return some books at the link: http://www.nysoclib.org/ledger/index.html. Question for librarians: should Washington’s service in the Revolutionary War and as our first President mitigate this oversight? Carolyn Waters, Assistant Head Librarian, told us the Mount Vernon Foundation did, in fact, provide a comparable copy of one of the overdue books as a gift. Many of the other Founding Fathers were also members
The New York Society Library was founded in 1754 because a “ ‘Publick library would be very useful as well as ornamental to the City.’” Originally a room in old City Hall ,The New York Society Library functioned as the unofficial Library of Congress when Congress met in the old City Hall during 1789-1790.
After moving uptown progressively for almost 200 years, the library, one of 16 subscription only institutions left in this country, has resided in a magnificent Italianate townhouse on 79th Street off Madison since 1937. You can see remnants of the original interior design in a beautiful skylight and the Member’s Room on the second floor. The second floor also houses an exhibition gallery where a collection of materials about Edith Wharton’s New York is currently on display.
We received a very thorough tour in small groups led by Carolyn Waters and Peri Pignetti, Bibliographic Assistant. The highlight for me was a sample of rare books displayed by Erin Schreiner, Special Collections Librarian. One of them displayed was a 15th Century work with its original wooden binding. Though broken, it hasn’t been rebound as that would negate its value and character. The library has a conservator on staff who looks after the rare materials and is currently making a much needed disaster plan.
The tour included the children’s room on the 3rd Floor which will be physically expanded. Also on the 3rd floor is the Whitridge Room, for reading, study and events for members. The late Brooke Astor’s husband, Charles Henry Marshall, donated money for the rare books room on the 4th Floor where Erin displayed the rare books. The 5th Floor houses individual study rooms and the Hornblower Room with outlets for laptops and wifi as well as some reference books. Many well know writers have worked on this floor and the study rooms are in great demand.
When you enter the library, you can see the circulation desk with shelving for some recent materials. Since the well known science fiction writer Ray Bradbury had died recently, a display of the library’s Bradbury holdings was on a table in the lobby. To the right of the entrance as you face the circulation desk is a public reference room. They still keep the card catalog on one wall even though the library’s catalog is available on line. There’s an almost hidden door in the wall I remembered from my high school days (hint: Lyndon Johnson was president). My father and I once spent an afternoon using the New York Times Index to chart the history of the Vietnam War for a school project. I asked Carolyn if they still keep the big red books and she said yes, even though it is available on line. Reference materials are still kept in this space.
I’m not going to go into facts and figures about the membership, approximately 3000 households, and the collection. You can learn those by accessing the website at www.nysoclib.org. Very special thanks to Carolyn, Peri and Erin for their wonderful presentations, including a folder with material about the library. For me, this MeetUp was a delightful blast from the past.
As a subscription library The New York Society Library is a nonprofit organization receiving support from its endowment and membership fees. Contributions are always welcome. They are tax deductible and may be made on the web or to The New York Society Library, 53 E. 79th Street, New York, NY 10075