10 of New York’s Oldest Libraries and Their Forgotten Histories

Courtesy of Morgan Library and Museum.

New York City’s libraries are renowned for their elegant architecture, extensive collections of classic and contemporary works, and quiet places to study within the bustling city. However, many of the city’s more than 200 libraries were originally built as former residences, courthouses, club gathering spaces, and even prisons. Reading in the New York Society Library, you may learn in the former master bedroom of the opulent Rogers family. At the Grolier Club, you can even scan books on the shelf that leads to a secret door opening onto a spiral staircase. Read on to discover the secret histories of 10 of New York’s oldest libraries!

1. The New York Society Library (1754)

The Whitridge Room of the New York Society Library
The Whitridge Room of the New York Society Library. Courtesy of the New York Society Library,

The New York Society Library, founded in 1754, was New York’s first library open to the public. Originally built for the well-to-do Rogers family, the library opened in a hall of Old City Hall with an open membership system. Until the founding of the public library system in 1895, the library of the New York Society was called “the library of the city”. Although the library is widely considered the oldest in the city, the physical location of the New York Society Library changed several times until it moved to its current location, 53 East 79th St., in 1937.

It is believed that the Rogers family lived in the current building, a large historic Italianate townhouse built in 1917, until 1935. Most of the reading rooms have since been refurbished. For example, the Whitridge Room was the former master bedroom and the Hornblower Room was the former maids quarters. Today, the library hosts many events for children, teens, and adults, such as lectures, writing classes, and reading groups.

Next: #2 The library of Société Générale

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