Character Study: President Washington, Your Library Books Are Overdue

Ms. Waters pointed out a shelf in the fiction section. One writer, Phyllis Rose, read every book on it, as the basis for her own book, “The Shelf.”

Another member, Ayun Halliday, was working away at the library one day when she had the idea to create a series of performances each month based on a different old book pulled from the stacks, said Ms. Waters, adding that her “own personal rabbit hole” was Stack 1, because of its collection of travel books.

Well before the New York Public Library was established in 1895, the New York Society Library was opened in downtown Manhattan and used by some of the founding fathers. After moving several times, it settled in 1937 in a five-story limestone townhouse on the Upper East Side.

Until recent decades, the library preserved circulation records, including the reading histories of prominent members like Henry James, P.G. Wodehouse, W.H. Auden and George Plimpton.

Digitized records of the founding fathers are available on the library’s website. One can learn, for example, that Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr both visited the Library on the same day in April, 1790, 14 years before their famous duel. Burr checked out a book by Voltaire, while Hamilton returned a book by Goethe.

Herman Melville borrowed a book on whaling while writing “Moby Dick,” and returned it more than a year later, with his handwritten notes scrawled in its margins, Ms. Waters said.

But the king of overdue books may be George Washington.

Ms. Waters pulled out a broad volume of ledgers dating back to 1789, which show borrowings by Washington, Hamilton, John Adams and others.