The New York Society Library (NYSL) is the oldest cultural institution in New York City. It was founded in 1754 by the New York Society as a subscription library. During the time when New York was the capital of the United States, it was the de facto Library of Congress.
Six residents of New York City formed the New York Society in 1754. At the time, the city did not have a library, and the New York Society believed that such an institution would be useful to the community. They convinced Colonial Governor James DeLancey to let them use a room in the original City Hall, at Wall and Broad streets, for that purpose. In 1772, the Society received a charter from King George III.
During the Revolutionary War, New York was occupied by the British Army. The library's small collection suffered from extensive looting. Soldiers tore book paper up to make wadding for their muskets, or sold the books for rum. After independence was achieved in 1783, the New York State Legislature recognized the library's charter.
The NYSL effectively served as the first Library of Congress for two years, and its records show borrowings by George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, among other early American notables from that time. Washington is believed to have failed to return two books due in 1789; the library has announced that it plans to waive the $300,000 fine but is still seeking the return of the books.
After Congress moved out, the library built its collection back up again to 5,000 volumes and moved to its own building on Nassau Street. It continued to grow in membership and volumes, remaining there through 1840, when it joined the New York Atheneum at Leonard Street and Broadway. Among the visitors recorded at that location were Henry David Thoreau and John James Audubon. Edgar Allan Poe and Ralph Waldo Emerson lectured there.
Since 1937, the library has been housed at 53 East 79th Street on Manhattan's Upper East Side.