National News

Overdue to Be Noticed

Posted June 16, 2018 2:55 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Founded in 1754, the New York Society Library, on East 79th Street in Manhattan, calls itself the oldest cultural institution in New York City.

“If you can find one that’s older, let us know,” said Carolyn Waters, its head librarian.

Yet the place remains little known, even to many New Yorkers.

“It’s surprising to me how under the radar we’ve been,” said Waters, 54, who at times can seem like a den mother for the writers who toil in the elegant reading and study rooms.

These have included the likes of Herman Melville and Washington Irving.

“We’ve always been a haven for writers,” Waters said. “You trip over them here. They’re everywhere.”

Since this is a membership library supported by annual fees and its endowment, patrons must pay to enjoy lending privileges for its roughly 300,000 volumes.

Members also enjoy access to the library’s stacks and its elegant, wood paneled spaces on upper floors decorated with paintings and sculptures.

Waters has pushed to widen membership beyond the Upper East Side, despite the challenge of the name itself.

“It’s frustrating, in many ways, to have that word, ‘society,’ in our name,” she said, because it can connote exclusivity.

In reality, she said, “we’re a society in the sense that we’re a community of people with a similar interest: We’re bibliophiles.”

Annual membership fees are reasonable: $335 for a family and $260 for individuals.

“It’s the last great bargain in Manhattan,” Waters said.

The library has roughly 2,800 members, she said, and allows nonmembers to use its ground-floor reference room for browsing and reading, and to attend many of its talks, exhibitions and events.

Waters has introduced more public gatherings. The reading group “Tea and Trollope,” which takes place seasonally on Sunday afternoons, has inspired similar programming, like a regular weekday teatime at 3 p.m. in the reference room.

Waters, a book lover who grew up in Long Valley, New Jersey, said she left a career in financial services to study library science at Pratt Institute. She began working at the New York Society Library as a circulation assistant in 2007 and worked her way up to head librarian three years ago.

After chatting with a group of writers, she headed to the second floor to the Members’ Room, an impressive, walnut paneled space where laptops are prohibited.

She walked through the children’s library and then into the stacks where several writers were working at little desks surrounded by endless shelves of books.

“It’s a source of inspiration for a lot of writers, having the books all around them,” she said, adding that writer Susan Cheever, whose father, John Cheever, was a member, browses the stacks for ideas.

Waters pointed out a shelf in the fiction section. One writer, Phyllis Rose, read every book on it, as the basis for her own book, “The Shelf.”

Another member, Ayun Halliday, was working at the library when she had the idea to create a series of performances based on a different book pulled from the stacks, said Waters, adding that her “own personal rabbit hole” was Stack 1, because of its collection of travel books.

Before the New York Public Library was established in 1895, the New York Society Library opened downtown and was used by some Founding Fathers. After moving several times, it settled in 1937 in a five-story limestone town house on the Upper East Side.

Until recent decades, the library preserved circulation records, including the reading histories of prominent members like Henry James, P.G. Wodehouse, W.H. Auden and George Plimpton.

Digitized records of the Founding Fathers are available on the library’s website. One can learn, for example, that Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr visited the library on the same day in April, 1790, 14 years before their duel. Burr checked out a book by Voltaire, while Hamilton returned a book by Goethe.

Herman Melville borrowed a book on whaling while writing “Moby-Dick,” and returned it more than a year later, with his handwritten notes scrawled in its margins, Waters said.

But the king of overdue books may be George Washington.

Waters pulled out a broad volume of ledgers dating back to 1789, which show borrowings by Washington, Hamilton, John Adams and others.

“I always get a thrill, looking at these,” she said, and pointed out a 1789 entry for two political books checked out by Washington, with no return date.

Pressed about what his overdue fine would amount to, Waters seemed willing to let the father of our country off the hook: Maybe it was a clerical oversight.

She laughed and said, “Librarians make errors too.”