The Institute Library (Originally established as the New Haven Young Men's Institute, and sometimes called the Young Men's Institute Library) is a membership library in New Haven, Connecticut. Founded in 1826 in the tradition of Mechanics' Institutes, it is New Haven’s oldest community library and one of the few membership libraries now remaining in North America. The organization was very active during the 19th century as a center for lectures, debates, and classes in New Haven. After a long period of decline in membership and activity, the library began a period of reengagement with the New Haven community in 2011 and now hosts and sponsors various programs in the arts and humanities.
In August 1826, eight young working men met at the home of Albert Wilcox in New Haven and founded the Apprentices' Literary Association, an educational society dedicated to the "mutual assistance in the attainment of useful knowledge” through a shared book collection and regular meetings of its members.
The activities of the young men, who evidently had established their organization free of any guiding patron or benefactor, soon began to attract the interest and aid of local educators, and classes were added to the readings and debates already taking place. In 1835, the Association opened its doors to women, and for the next several decades, the organization flourished as the democratic heart of intellectual life in New Haven.
The New Haven Young Men's Institute, as the organization was named in its state charter of 1841, was a center of literary culture, adult education, and civil discourse in New Haven for much of the 19th century, serving for many years as the largest circulating library in the city and the site of popular lecture series that attracted such notable speakers as Henry Ward Beecher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, and Anna E. Dickinson. The Institute Library, as members call the organization today, has occupied its present home at 847 Chapel Street since 1878.
After the establishment of the New Haven Free Public Library in 1887, the Institute Library began to withdraw from the public life of the city and focus primarily on expanding and circulating its collection of general-interest and popular literature. The librarian during this period, William A. Borden, made use of the Institute Library as a laboratory in which to experiment with new library technologies and practices. During the first six months his engagement, he developed a new classification system for the library’s collection, which is unique to the Institute Library and remains in use today, together with Borden’s original card catalog.
In 1910, Borden accepted an invitation from the progressive Indian prince, Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III of Baroda, to create and direct a free public library system for the people of his state. Following the departure of Borden for India, the Institute Library turned further inward, prompting the Centennial Committee in 1926 to comment on its diminished role in the community: "We are practically a circulating library with certain features and privileges of a club, marking time, as it were, till we see the light of a real purpose, some real niche in the city which we can fill."
The Institute Library launched a major revitalization campaign in 2011 to renew its historical connections to the city of New Haven and attempt to ensure the organization's long-term survival. In February of that year, the library hired its first Executive Director, William C. Baker, and open hours were increased from 15 to 45 per week. Major repairs and renovations to the library's building soon followed, together with the launching of new programs, events, and community partnerships. By September 2011, membership doubled, and the revitalization efforts were subsequently recognized with a 2011 Arts Award from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. In June 2014, the library hired the second Executive Director, Natalie Elicker, who was succeeded by Valerie Garlick in August 2016.
For an annual subscription fee of $25, the Institute Library provides members with various amenities, including use of its space for reading and study, borrowing privileges from a circulating collection of approximately 30,000 titles, options to host private events and meetings, first notice of public events and programs, an unusual books-by-mail borrowing service, and input on library acquisitions, space, and programs. While it provides these privileges to its members, the library is committed as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization to its surrounding community and makes most programs, events, and exhibitions available to the public.
Board of directors
The current board of directors in 2018 includes Patricia K. Thurston (President), Gary Ottenbreit (Vice-President), Michael Spicer (Treasurer), Roland Coffey (Secretary), Gregory J. Pepe (Immediate Past-President), Laura Boyer, Elena Dixon, Tadgh Dooley, Andrew Drabkin, Bennett Graff, Josh Mamis, Maryann Ott.