For more than a quarter of a millennium, the New York Society Library has played a central role in the evolution of the availability of books in New York City and the country. If New York is the communications capital of the United States, this library is arguably one of the reasons why. It is no surprise that it has attracted such luminaries as George Washington, Herman Melville, Willa Cather, and Truman Capote.
In 1754, when there was no library in the city open to the public, the New York Society—a group of six civic-minded individuals—formed the Library in the belief that a subscription library which anyone could join, and offering a broad range of books, "would be very useful as well as ornamental to the City." It opened in a room in the old City Hall, on Wall Street facing Broad Street, and for a century and a half—until the founding of the public library system in 1895—was known as "the City Library," which in fact is what it was. It received a charter from George III in 1772, confirmed after the Revolution by the New York State Legislature.
At a meeting held on April 30th at the Exchange Coffee Room on Broad Street, the following twelve trustees were elected: Lieutenant Governor James DeLancey, James Alexander, William Alexander, the Reverend Henry Barclay, John Chambers, Robert R. Livingston, Joseph Murray, Benjamin Nicoll, William Peartree Smith, William Walton, and John Watts.
The New York Society Library was the name chosen for the new organization although it was generally called the New York Library until 1759. The word "society" was not then used in a social sense and the liberal founders had no thought of exclusiveness. They said: "The rights and privileges in the said Library shall not be confined to this city, but that every person residing in this province may become a subscriber."
Following the first official meeting of the trustees on May 7, 1754, books were ordered from London and in October the new library was launched. Benjamin Hildreth was appointed Library Keeper to attend every Wednesday afternoon from two to four, at a salary of six pounds per annum. Books were lent for certain periods according to their size—a folio for six weeks, a quarto for four, an octavo for three, and a duo-decimo for two.
The Library prospered and in 1772 applied for and received a charter from King George III. The resolution with signatures, the rough parchment draft of the charter, the beautiful parchment document itself, and the bill for engrossing it are among the Library's treasures today.
The minutes of the New York Society Library continued to record progress until May 9, 1774, after which follows this laconic entry: "The accidents of the late war having nearly destroyed the former Library, no meeting of the proprietors for the choice of Trustees was held from the last Tuesday in April 1774 until Tuesday ye 20 December 1788."