Books and Borrowing 1750-1830

An Englishman in New York: A visit to Manhattan and the New York Society Library

New York

Continuing my tour of American subscription libraries, I left Charleston and flew almost 650 miles north to New York and LaGuardia Airport. New York City is a true cornucopia of libraries, ranging from the magnificence that is the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of New York Public Library, to the equally impressive Morgan Library & Museum, which houses the manuscripts, early printed books, drawings and prints accumulated by the financier J.P. Morgan (1837-1913). Each of these libraries and their collections would deserve their own blog but I will reserve myself today with a discussion of the eighteenth-century history of another of New York’s libraries, its oldest and the fourth oldest subscription library in the United States, the New York Society Library.

The main entrance to the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue

As was the case for the Charleston Library Society, discussed in last week’s blog, the New York Society Library bore all the hallmarks of a typical eighteenth century subscription library. The library was collectively owned by its members in the form of shares, uniquely called ‘rights’, which could be passed on or inherited. Members were required to pay an annual subscription, and the library’s administration was overseen by a body of twelve ‘trustees’, elected annually from and by the wider membership.[1] A central argument of my doctoral thesis is that we should consider subscription libraries as political associations which were significant in a number of ways. They provided a political education to library members, not only through the circulation of reading material amongst a politically engaged public, but also a civic education through participation in the administrative elements of the subscription library which combined constitutionalist and democratic features. The political complexions of these libraries also mirrored the political and social hierarchies of the communities they were located in. This is no less true for the New York Society Library, which repeatedly saw political quarrels play out between library members. Critically, these disagreements often centred over control of the library’s administrative decision-making body, the board of trustees.

At its founding in 1754, the library was closely associated with the Livingston faction within New York’s politics, with three of the library’s six founders, William Livingston (1723-90), John Morin Scott (1730-84), and William Smith Jr. (1728-93), collectively termed the ‘Whig Triumvirate’.[2] The library’s formation represented, in the words of one historian, a ‘controversy within a controversy’, and it was intended to intellectually counterbalance the Anglican influence of King’s College, now Columbia University, which was founded the same year.[3] From its outset then, the New York Society Library was intimately connected to the city’s political and religious debates. Indeed, these divisions made themselves felt at the first election of the library’s trustees in 1755 where complaints were made that a ‘dirty scheme’ was afoot to exclude Presbyterians from the library’s administration.[4] Elections of the library’s trustees continued to prove ‘rancorous’ until 1758 when King’s College established its own library.[5]

As was the case at the Charleston Library Society, the Revolutionary period proved to be one of immense upheaval, as subscribers and trustees were split along loyalist and patriot lines. British troops looted books from the library in 1776 during their occupation of Manhattan, and no meetings of the library’s trustees were held between 1774 and 1788.[6]

Following its reopening in December 1788, the library saw an uptick in its fortune, with membership rising rapidly from 239 members in 1789, to 892 in 1793. In 1795, the library moved into its own purpose-built premises on Nassau Street, having previously been housed inside New York’s City Hall. However, it accumulated a great deal of debt in doing so, debt that it would continue to pay interest on for the next forty years.[7] Indeed, the library faced financial difficulties that bear resemblance to those faced by the Bristol Library Society in the same period: increasing expenditure combined with a steadily declining library membership.[8]

Plaque beside the entrance to the New York Society Library at its present location at 53 East 79th Street

A period of relative administrative calm was shattered in 1825 with a contested trustee election, which resulted in the unprecedented election of nine new trustees. The result was quickly the subject of an appeal and arbitration by James Kent, the chancellor of the State of New York and a former trustee, who subsequently ruled that the entire election was void for votes having been cast by library subscribers whose membership had never been formally approved.[9] Elections to the board of trustees would again prove tumultuous during the 1830s, principally between opponents and proponents of a proposed merger with another subscription library, the New York Athenaeum, which had been founded in 1824.[10]

Generally, library elections whether for a trustee or committee position were uneventful affairs, with dissension rare and incumbents regularly re-elected. Contrasted with this, the repeated occasions where trustee elections seem to have been contested at the New York Society Library are noteworthy. Whether these contests emerged because of external partisan differences between members is still to be determined but they were significant enough to result in debates within different kinds of published media, such as pamphlets and newspapers, as well as vocally within the library itself.

[1] Austin Baxter Keep, History of the New York Society Library (New York: De Vinne Press, 1908), pp.136-38.

[2] Mike Rapport, Rebel Cities: Paris, London and New York in the Age of Revolution (London: Abacus, 2017), p.6.

[3] Tom Glynn, Reading Publics: New York City’s Public Libraries, 1754-1911 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), p.23.

[4] Keep, History of the New York Society Library, p.139. This ‘Scheme’ involved the circulation of lists of trustees amongst the library’s subscribers, a method also adopted by some of the members of the Bristol Library Society at a controversial committee election in 1799. Max Skjönsberg, and Mark Towsey, ‘Introduction’, in The Minute Book of the Bristol Library Society, 1771–1801 (Bristol: Bristol Record Society, 2022).

[5] Glynn, Reading Publics, p.25.

[6] Ibid, pp.28-29; New York Society Library, Second Minute Book, 1773-1832, p.27.

[7] Glynn, Reading Publics, pp.29-30.

[8] Bristol Archives 32079/160, Cash book of the Bristol Library Society, 2 Dec 1772–24 April 1871.

[9] Glynn, Reading Publics, p.32. In 1812, the rules of admittance to the library had been tightened to require that any new shareholder must be formally approved by a vote of the trustees. A similar rule was also in force at the Leighton Library, although at both libraries, there is no evidence that any such votes were ever held, or any potential member excluded. A Catalogue of the Leightonian Library, Dunblane (Edinburgh: William Smellie, 1793).

[10] Glynn, Reading Publics, pp.34-39.