Carolyn Waters


John Emerson

Housed in an Italianate building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the 265-year-old New York Society Library might seem more fitting as a place requiring white gloves than a venue offering a Drag Queen story hour. But head librarian Carolyn Waters is working to dispel that preconception.

“In the 18th century, ‘society’ just meant a group of people with similar interests, and today that’s exactly who we are—readers, writers, and families united in our love of books and reading,” says Waters DC’86 about the city’s oldest library. Besides its impressive collection of circulating and research materials, the membership library hosts staff-curated exhibitions (some of which are open to the public), writing groups, author readings, comedy nights, and open mic events showcasing members’ work. Waters presides over these, offering up equal doses of humor and encouragement.

Many of the events are held in the library’s elegant wood-paneled Members Room on the second floor, where tall windows look out onto 79th Street between Park and Madison Avenues. The room also holds special charm for those who enjoy an environment where keyboard use is prohibited. “As long as [members] want a quiet place to read and study, we’ll give that to them,” Waters says. 

The library recently started offering tea, coffee, and cookies in the Reference Room every weekday at 3 p.m. “It’s an opportunity for people to get together to talk about books, to talk about what they’re working on, to support each other,” Waters says. It’s just another part of her commitment to fostering a sense of community in the library. She’s also invested in raising the profile of the institution both in the neighborhood and throughout the city by emphasizing not only the range of current offerings, but also the library’s rich history. Among other notable facts, library membership has always been open to women as well as men, an exceptional policy at the time of its founding. “A woman signed the charter, and 57 women appear on the charging ledgers,” Waters says. Many women were members in their own right, rather than under their husbands’ names.

Today, to help organize and run the library’s many programs and maintain its collections, Waters is assisted by a staff of 34, who, like many of the members, often sustain long relationships with the institution. One employee recently celebrated 55 years of service. “The library inspires tremendous loyalty,” Waters says, adding that nearly 300 people have been members for more than 40 years.  

Although Waters didn’t originally plan on becoming a librarian, she now seems right at home heading an institution that counts George Washington, Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton among its earliest members. An economics and political science double major at Rutgers, she worked on Wall Street before changing paths in 2006, taking a job as a circulation assistant at the library while earning her master’s degree in library science. Only three women have led the library, including another Rutgers graduate: Edith Hall Crowell DC’30, appointed in 1936.   

Running a nonprofit is a challenge, Waters says, and her business background has been essential to her role, which encompasses responsibilities ranging from creating budgets to ensuring access to digital materials. She works long hours but is inspired by her mission “to help position the library well for the next 265 years,” she says. “It’s an awesome obligation.”