Photo courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

New York City libraries are renowned for their gorgeous architecture, vast collections of classical and contemporary works, and quiet study places amongst the hustle and bustle of the city beyond their doors. But which one came first? Many of these libraries weren’t originally built to be libraries but started life as old residences, courthouses, club gathering spaces, and even prisons that have been converted. New York City is home to an astounding 220 libraries in New York City, not even counting the multitude of private libraries.

These history-rich buildings are loaded with secrets in their walls – hidden histories that you could be sitting amongst without ever realizing. You could be reading archives from 1785 in the same spot as tradesmen were studying years ago at the General Society Library. Or perhaps studying in the former master bedroom of the opulent Rogers family at the New York Society Library. Maybe you are scanning books on the very shelf that is secretly a door leading to a spiral staircase at the Grolier Club!

Read on for the secret histories of ten of the oldest libraries in New York City!

1. The New York Society Library (1754)

Photograph courtesy New York Society Library, The Whitridge Room

The New York Society Library was founded in 1754, turning 265 years old this month! It was actually the first library in New York City open to the public, originally built for the affluent Rogers family. The library was opened in a room in the old City Hall with a subscription system open to anyone. Until the founding of the public library system in 1895, The New York Society Library was referred to as “the City Library.” The library itself moved locations throughout the next few decades, following the book-lovers uptown until 1937, where it remains at its present location at 53 East 79th St.

It is believed that the Rogers family lived in the current building, a large landmakred Italianite townhouse constructed in 1917, up until 1935. Most of the reading rooms have since then been repurposed. For example, the Whitridge Room was the former master bedroom and the Hornblower room was the former maids’ rooms! Today, the library hosts many events for children, teenagers, and adults alike such as monthly writing groups and book clubs.