April 2011 | Basie Gitlin

New Ideas at Connecticut's Only Remaining Membership Library

institute.jpg Mention the city of New Haven to most bibliophiles, and they will immediately think of the world-renowned Yale University Library, or perhaps the antiquarian bookselling firm William Reese Company. Fair enough: even many of us book people who call New Haven home are completely unaware that the only remaining membership library in Connecticut is tucked away on the upper floors of a building on Chapel Street, where it has served members since 1878.

The Young Men's Institute Library was founded in 1826; it came by 1840 to absorb the collections of two similar institutions, the Mechanic Library Society and the Social Library Company. Before the establishment of the New Haven Free Public Library in 1887, the Institute Library served town and gown alike as one of the city's main spaces for civic discourse and the circulation of books and ideas. For the past century, though, it has struggled to define its place in a city that has since become home to both a large public library and a major research library. The chosen solution seems to have been largely not to change: the fully operational card catalog, banker's lamps, and aisles of turn-of-the-century titles suggest a 1920s time warp. Shrinking membership and a wounded endowment have since endangered the library, although it has maintained regular open hours and continued to add new titles to its circulating collection. How many people in the city could be expected to appreciate and patronize such a biblio-anachronism?

In a serious revitalization effort, the Board of Directors have named William C. Baker the Institute Library's first full-time Executive Director. A trained librarian with experience in the antiquarian book trade, he studied the Institute's history and policies while attending library school. I've known Will for several years and have every confidence that his knowledge and energy will help this historic--and utterly charming and quirky--New Haven literary institution to redefine itself. (Membership has already increased by nearly 50% in the past three months!) Ties to the local book arts community and a lecture series are in the works, and more of the Victorian building's atmospheric spaces are being refurbished and made accessible to members. But don't expect computer banks and e-readers any time soon: the Institute Library is decidedly devoted to the printed word, and its members seem to like it that way.

The Institute Library is located at 847 Chapel Street in New Haven. Membership costs $25 per year. For more history and information, visit www.institutelibrary.org.