Sunday, April 18, 2010

Washington Overdue at New York Society Library

The story about George Washington's overdue books at the New York Society Library, New York's oldest library, in the New York Daily News yesterday (April 17) is receiving a lot of media attention. In 1789 when the books were borrowed by Washington, the nation's seat of government was in New York City, located at City Hall (called Federal Hall while occupied by the national government) where the library was also located. The New York Society Library likes to call itself the first Library of Congress. The Library Company of Philadelphia which served the Continental Congress also likes to make this claim. During the period April 1774 to December 1788 while hostilities with the British raged, the Library was out of commission. According to one history of the library its books were "scattered, burned or bartered for grog by the British soldiers". It's a wonder that there were any books left for Washington and the members of Congress to borrow. The New York Society Library is one of the few surviving membership libraries in the United States. The oldest artifact in my collection of librariana relates to the Library. The note above, dated March 1, 1793, is from I. Pearsee to Isaac L. Kipp. It promises to pay the sum of $15 for one share in the New York Library by the first of May. The Library was raising funds for a new building which it occupied in 1795. By March 1, 1793, Washington probably owed less than a hundred dollars on his overdue fines. They could have helped pay for the new building.

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