Private Libraries in New York City

There are more than twenty private libraries in Manhattan—free or fee-based—that offer workshops, lectures, reading groups, writing seminars and access to archives.

By Sally Wendkos Olds

The New York Society Library Member’s Room. Photo by Manhattan Sideways.

My friend Silvia Koner pays $260 a year to be a member of The New York Society Library, one of more than twenty private libraries in Manhattan. When I asked Silvia why she pays so much for this membership, when we have the renowned New York Public Library, with its 88 citywide branches here for free, she told me, “I had gone to a lecture there and was so enchanted by the building and the atmosphere that I joined immediately and have kept renewing my membership ever since. I’m an omnivorous reader and I love the fact that, with its twelve floors of open stacks, I can get any book I want right away. I’ve also participated in very special members-only seminars about Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, and Henry James.” Another friend, Dan Cryer, an author and book reviewer, told me he finds books and articles here that he can’t find anywhere else, both for his professional research and his private pleasure.

Besides the renowned New York Public Library, we New Yorkers are living on a Treasure Island of more than twenty private libraries, both free and fee-based, specialized and general. Some are described below and some others are listed in the sidebar to this article. There seems to be a library for every special interest. Here are just a few:

The New York Society Library, 53 East 79th Street, which Silvia belongs to, was founded in 1754, offers a rich calendar of events, some open to the public for minimal fees, some for members only. (As a non-member, I was able to attend a lively talk by author Susan Quinn about her book, “Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady,” for $15. But I was disappointed that I couldn’t get into a four-part members-only series about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet.) Besides classes, lectures, seminars, and performances, the library offers writing groups, and a program to teach the craft of making books by hand. Membership is $260 for an individual, $335 for more than one person, and $225 for a teacher or full-time college student. [M-F 9-5; Sa-Su 11-5]

The Center for Fiction. Photo by Manhattan Sideways.

The Center for Fiction, 17 East 47th Street, formerly known as The Mercantile Library, was founded in 1820 by merchants to keep their clerks “away from the rum-shop and the billiards room.” It is now the only nonprofit library in the U.S. totally devoted to fiction. It has a circulating library of more than 85,000 classic and contemporary fiction titles and related nonfiction, and members have access to almost all new fiction immediately. It offers workshops, presentations by authors and editors, reading groups, and writing workshops. A few years ago, I took part in an excellent discussion group series focused on James Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses, which I had fallen in love with. Membership costs $100 per person, $90 for seniors and students, $250 for a household, or $180 for a senior household.

Tamiment Library, in NYU’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library (see below), 70 Washington Square South, was founded in 1906 as part of a workers education school sponsored by the American Socialist Society. It became a cultural and educational center for the left in New York, and was acquired by NYU in 1963. I first heard of it when I wanted to do research in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives about Elkan Wendkos, my cousin who went to Spain in 1937 with the Brigade to fight against Franco. He died at age 23. No one who knew him is still alive, so I was excited to find photos and other information about him. Among the library’s other disparate holdings are the Archives of Irish America, along with a wealth of information about politics and labor history. Admission is free with a photo ID, with which you can get a day pass or a library card, and you can copy print or audio materials. [M-F 10-5, with some exceptions]

Left, Rose Schneiderman, suffragist, labor organizer, and women’s rights activist, from the Rose Schneiderman Photograph Collection at the Tamiment Library. Right, Alice in Wonderland at the Morgan Library.

Frick Art Reference Library, in the Frick Collection, 10 East 71st Street, was first located in the bowling alley of the home of multimillionaire Henry Clay Frick and his family. Frick’s daughter, Helen Clay Frick, established the library as a memorial to her father, and in 1935, their magnificent home opened to the public as a museum. It includes paintings, drawings, prints, and sculpture from the fourth to the mid-twentieth centuries by European and American artists, as well as archival materials about the history of art collecting and Frick’s collecting in particular. The Frick was in the news recently for its anticipated exhibition of a nude plaster model of George Washington, and library users will certainly be able to read about the model and its sculptor, Antonio Canova. Anyone over 18 can access the library without an appointment and without any additional fee other than museum admission. First-time visitors are asked to come before 3 pm weekdays and before 11 am Saturdays with a photo ID to register for a library card. You can use a digital camera, laptop, or tablet in the library and can request up to 20 items a day for consultation inside the museum. You are also free to search the collection online. I just came across a reference to this library in the captivating novel The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith, when the book’s heroine is researching a rare 17th century Dutch painting. [M-F 10-5; Sa, September-May 9:30-1; Aug closed M, F]

Morgan Library and Museum, 225 Madison Avenue (corner 36th Street), first known as Mr. Morgan’s Library, was built between 1902 and 1906 to house financier Pierpont Morgan’s collection of illuminated, literary, and historical manuscripts, early printed books, and old master drawings and prints. In 1924 his son, J.P. Morgan, Jr., opened it to the public. Its collection includes music manuscripts, early children’s books, Americana, and materials from the twentieth century. In 2006, a major expansion designed by prize–winning architect Renzo Piano added to its amenities (restaurant, café, gift shop) and its beauty with a translucent roof and a four-story steel-and-glass atrium. One of the nicest times I have ever had as a grandmother included the day I took Lisa to see an extensive and absorbing exhibit about Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which we both loved. [Tu-Th 10:30-5, Fri 10:30-9, Sa 10-6, Su 11-6]

New York Academy of Medicine, 1216 Fifth Avenue (103rd Street), initially established for physicians, opened to the public in 1878. A little more recently than that, I was a frequent visitor, researching the first edition of my book, The Complete Book of Breastfeeding (1972). These days researchers can find much medical information online, but the impressive building is still worth visiting. It boasts rare and historical materials, including anatomical atlases, information about cardiology, cookery, dermatology, healthy living, the history of medicine in New York City, homeopathy and other alternative medical systems, botany, neurology, surgery, and women’s and children’s health. You can also find poetry, fiction, and philosophy, along with natural histories and early scientific texts showing how doctors saw themselves as part of a broad intellectual community. The library’s Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health presents free public programs—its current priorities are healthy aging, disease prevention, and eliminating health disparities. You can get information via phone or email about physicians’ credentials and answers to short, factual inquiries. Although the stacks are closed, you can request up to 10 items by phone or email and make an appointment to come in to read them. [To visit you need to make an appointment. Call 212-822-7315 or email library@nyam.org. Tu, Th, F, 10-4:45, We, 10-6:45]

Then, of course, there is the magnificent New York Public Library, guarded by the famous stone lions, Patience and Fortitude. Besides the main building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street (the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building), its 88 neighborhood branches and four scholarly research centers, offer a wealth of riches. At the Schwarzman building I have heard such prominent speakers as Gloria Steinem, Diane von Furstenberg, Alan Cumming, and other icons from the worlds of literature and entertainment. And last week as a Friend of the Library ($50 annual contribution) I attended an evening of Mingle and Book Swap. For information, go to the website and click on “Get Help.”

The library’s four research centers, each of which has a different focus, are the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, focused on humanities and social sciences; The Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center; The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at 135th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard; and The Science, Industry and Business Library (“SIBL”), at 34th St. and Madison Avenue (what I remember as the old B. Altman store).

The Brooklyn Public Library and Queens Public Library, which are separate systems, also offer innumerable programs and services, almost all free. The NYC, Brooklyn, and Queens branch libraries typically offer such programs as art exhibits, book discussions, movies, computer classes, job search information, chances to play Scrabble and other board games and to color with company in adult coloring books.

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SOME OTHER PRIVATE LIBRARIES IN NEW YORK

Columbia University Libraries (535 West 114th Street, 212-854-7309) These include the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, C.V. Starr East Asian Library, Butler Library, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and others. Besides students and faculty and alumni/ae of Columbia and Barnard, various guest categories can use the riches of the Columbia University library system. For information on access, go to Using the Libraries.

Elmer Holmes Bobst Library (70 Washington Square South, email: bobst@nyu.edu, 212-998-2500) has a few collections open to the public. Researchers and visitors with a photo ID can visit the Library Privileges window in the lobby of Bobst, to be issued a pass.  To get an overview of which collections you can see, and when and where, go to Access to Special Collections. Clicking on the Library Privileges and then looking at the “Quick Links” at the right of the Library Privileges page will give details about another collection open to the public, the Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive.

General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York.

General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York (20 West 44th Street, 212-840-1840) Housed in the New York Center for Independent Publishing, it is the largest free circulating library in New York City. Its main focus is on urban work history, and its more than 100,000 books include fiction, nonfiction, trade, and technical titles. The Crouse Library for Publishing Arts contains a comprehensive collection of books, periodicals, reports, and other materials on the bookselling and publishing industries, including censorship, an important issue these days. Scholars have called it “an important [collection] that aids our understanding of the book trade as a profession.” Membership is $50, or $35 for over 65. Lectures and other events are open to nonmembers and you can subscribe to its mailing list for free. Email: Victoria.dengel@generalsociety.org.

Grolier Club (47 East 60th Street, 212-838-6690, or email Meghan Constantinou: mconstantinou@grolierclub.org) Its more than 100,000 books about the art and history of the book include catalogues, bibliographies, book auction sales, and type specimens. It is open to members (who must be nominated by a member) and by appointment to nonmembers.

New School University Libraries Various locations. The New School’s several libraries include the Adam and Sophie Gimbel Design Library, Fogelman Social Sciences and Humanities Library. They are principally open to students and faculty but certain researchers can get access.

Consulting materials from the Thomas J. Watson Library’s Special Collections.

Thomas J Watson Library, Nolen Library, and other libraries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue) The several libraries in the museum, all of which focus on (of course!) art, support the research of the Museum staff and serve an international community of researchers. Each library’s different focus is described on this website, and information about access is also here: Libraries and Research Centers.

William and Anita Newman Library (151 East 25th Street, 646-312-1610) As part of the CUNY system this library’s print and electronic collections can be used by undergraduate and graduate students and faculty. Its major focus is in business and public affairs. To access a title you have to go to your local library first and if they don’t have what you want and CUNY does, they will give you a METRO card to obtain it. There is a way to become a Friend of the Library for $250 a year and up, but it is not now accepting new members.

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Sally Wendkos Olds is an award-winning author or coauthor of eleven books and more than 200 articles that have appeared in major national magazines. She is currently writing a book for people who have been widowed for a year or longer.

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  • Katie Fishman

    Very, very helpful article, Sally – I will print it out & save it. You’ve updated info on places I knew and clued me into some new places. Thanks|

    • Sally Wendkos Olds

      Thanks, Katie. Glad it was helpful!

  • Lorrie Bodger

    This is an intriguing article, but I’m a little confused about your definition of “private” library. The New York, Queens, and Brooklyn Public Libraries are, by definition, public–not private. On the other hand, it’s not clear from your paragraph whether the special collections at the public libraries are actually open to the public. Confusing.

    And I’d like to add a little more about the New York Society Library, of which I’ve been a member since 2011. I’m a writer, and I use the library in many ways: the 5th floor is a wonderful workroom for anyone needing quiet, companionship, comfort, and wifi. There are smaller rooms one may reserve, if privacy would help the work. Any book I need and can’t find (or reserve) at the NYSL can be found offsite by the staff, using an interlibrary system of borrowing. The book gets to me asap.

    The children’s library is so charming that I sometimes visit just for the pleasure of it. There’s wifi throughout the building, of course, so I can sit anywhere (except the Members Room!) and type notes on my iPad or MacAir. The exhibits are unique (and accessible to the public); the evening and daytime events (including the talks in the Writing Life program) offer compelling topics.

    But the ultimate reason the NYSL is such a great place to work, read, relax is the staff: uncompromisingly helpful, kind, hospitable, knowledgeable, interested. Using the library is like having a sort of extra home–a home full of every kind of book from the very latest bestseller to perhaps the first book you remember reading when you first began to love books. All taken care of by professionals who will help you when and if you need help and care for the books the way books deserve to be cared for.

    • Sally Wendkos Olds

      You’re absolutely right, Lorrie, that the New York, Queens, and Brooklyn Public Libraries are not private. I should have made that clearer when I tacked them onto the end of the article — I just felt I could not leave them out of this picture of NYC library treasures. So far as I could learn, their special collections are open to the public, but sometimes special arrangements must be made.

  • filatura

    Thanks for the overview, Sally. If you don’t mind, I’ll add to your review of the New York Society, which has been my home away from home for years. Among its pleasures is the Members’ Reading Room, stocked with current periodicals and furnished like a tony private club with leather easy chairs, good reading lights and cabinets full of what appear to be precious china. Tea and coffee are served on weekday afternoons. One of the upper floors is dedicated to silent study, writing and research. A large room with work tables and Internet connections is where I go to write when I can’t stand my own four walls anymore; the treetop view from its large windows is a refreshment to the eyes and brain. It’s also wonderful to work at the tiny tables (also Internet-connected) scattered throughout the stacks.

    • Sally Wendkos Olds

      Thanks for adding this. Your description is so good I feel as if I am there with you.

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