Because I know you were dying to find this out
Further reading in Cushing’s papers gives us some info at least approaching an answer to this query:
I take an early opportunity to write to you on the subject of the Historical Society, agreeably to your obliging request. It was incorporated by the Legislature of this State, in the year 1809, when Clinton, Tompkins, Brockholst, Livingston, Bishop Moore, & other eminent men of that day, were among its active members. Its corporate name is, “The New York Historical Society.”
The Congressional Journals & Documents are regularly sent to the Society, but there are other publications to which we may be entitled – such as – the American State Papers, Diplomatic Correspondence, Gale & Seaton’s Debates, the Madison Papers, the Catalogue of the Library of Congress & of the State Department, &c.
I need not add, that should it be in your power to procure for our Library copies of any of these or other works published by Congress, you will confer a great obligation upon the Society.
The Library now contains about 12000 volumes, chiefly books of great value in connexion to the history of our country. Since my accession to the laborious office of Librarian, now nearly two years, more than a thousand volumes have been added, of which a great part have been donations; and it is my ambition to render it the most complete collection of books relating to America to be found in our country. …
~George Folsom to Caleb Cushing, New York, 11 Dec 1840, in Caleb Cushing Papers, Mss Division, Library of Congress
So: the New York Historical Society (or, as it affects itself to be now, the “New-York Historical Society“) was considered a “public” library eligible to recieve Congressional documents, though not by any means all government documents (hence the letter to Cushing).
Interesting. So “public” in the sense of being “public spirited” not, say, “open to the rabble,” like the later Carnegie-funded libraries would be. Now the next question is, how deep did this distribution go? Did libraries without the ambition to become the best collection of Americana also get government reports?
(Also: thanks to those who commented; I haven’t gotten a chance to do any secondary reading, but Alan Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town is on my list)
More to come.
Image cite: marsi, “packing papers,” Flickr, CC License