The Forgotten World of Masonic Libraries
By Scott Bisogni
For over 150 years, The Chancellor Robert R Livingston Masonic Library of Grand Lodge of the State of New York, located at Masonic Hall at 71 West 23rd Street in Manhattan, has focused on trying to collect, study, and preserve Masonic heritage. Originally established in the 1850’s to hold the books and records held by the Grand Lodge, it was not until the late 19th century that the library began to expand. This expansion was due mainly to the addition of the collection of Robert Morris, Masonic poet laureate. The Livingston continued to grow over the years from donations and acquisitions of new books relating to Freemasonry. It was not until 1935 that the library started taking on the form that it currently holds. During this year, the Livingston and the Grand Lodge Board of Antiquities were combined. Under the Board of General Activities, the Livingston and the Museum merged into one organization and took its place at Masonic Hall, where the library served mainly as a reading room for Masons.
Throughout the 20th century, under the leadership of Wendell K. Walker, the services and resources of the library increased and helped to make the library a premiere center for Masonic research. This status was substantiated in 1983 with the attainment of a charter from the New York State Board of Regents. In1996 the Library was moved to the 14th floor of Masonic Hall. At this location facilities were constructed to provide environmental controls for the book and artifact collections. Here also there is a reference staff to assist researchers. The library is open to the general public for research, but since it is a research facility the stacks are kept closed. A limited number of books are available for check out. The circulating book collection consists of two copies of books published after 1920. Any New York State Master Mason in good standing with a lodge under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of New York may check out up to five books for a period of three weeks. One copy of the reference book must be kept on the shelves at all times to insure continued access to that reference material.
The Livingston Masonic Library is a small but important library. When getting off the elevator on the 14th floor, there are two wall size display cases filled with old Masonic swords and artifacts. When entering the library, a researcher would be in what is considered the museum. Here visitors are exposed to some of the artifacts that are held in the Livingston’s collections. These artifacts are cataloged by a custom in house system that was developed by a past curator. In the corner of the library, there is a computer terminal that is connected to the library’s database.
When searching the collections, there are two access portals. The first gives access to the library’s book catalog, which includes only the circulating collection. Any rare or older books are found in the artifact catalogs. Researchers interested in the artifact collection are directed to the George Washington National Masonic Memorial Association in Alexandria, Virginia, which has teamed up with the Livingston Library in an ongoing attempt to develop the Memorial’s United States Masonic Digital Collection. This online catalog of Masonic items will use the Content DM software program, licensed by the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), Inc., of Dublin, Ohio. Information is being merged between these two Masonic organizations not only to increase the visibility of the collections, but also in an ongoing attempt to help standardize the display of Masonic collections.
By searching through these collections, a researcher can get a glimpse into everyday life from America’s past. For example, a look through the Recently Uploaded Artifacts and Biographies Collection turns up a cigarette case, a hand mirror, and a standing thermometer, all of which would have been used in the early to mid 1900s. For more specific research, searching by an individual name returns better results.
Whether positive or negative, many individuals have made contributions to American History and Freemasons count within these ranks. The Livingston offers help in searching for information on these people. For example, a researcher searching for information on Benedict Arnold, would find the Livingston a good place to look. He was a patriot and Freemason before becoming a traitor. A quick search in the book catalog returns six bibliographic results. The first result reveals the book Benedict Arnold: patriot and traitor by Willard Sterne Randall. When the book symbol is clicked, cataloging information is displayed along with a copy of the index card from the card catalog. This book provides information on Arnold’s influence in American History. For a more detailed look, a search through the artifact collection is warranted. When Benedict Arnold is entered into the keyword search field, the first result of many is very specific: the Minutes Book from Solomon’s Lodge No. 1 in Poughkeepsie, NY. This book records a visit from Benedict Arnold in 1771, before he became a traitor. It also records the Lodge’s reaction in 1781 when his actions became known. As a side note, George Washington is also recorded as a visitor in 1782. Using this minutes book, a researcher can get a personal glimpse into everyday Americana and see what went on behind the scenes as history unfolded. The book has been photographed and put online in a high-resolution image so that it can be fully researched online. To see the actual artifact, a researcher must make a request to the Director, who determines on an individual basis whether to grant access to handle an artifact. The insight gained by actually looking at a piece of American History instead of just reading about it can make a difference when studying a topic.
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