The Institute Library

847 Chapel St, New Haven, CT 06510

203.562.4045 •

A step into the Institute Library can feel like a step out of everyday life. Nestled between a tattoo parlor and a discount jewelry store on a busy downtown block, and perched above street level on the second and third floors of 847 Chapel Street, the library has a tranquil, slightly outdated ambience. There are no sleek computers or trendy Ikea-style furniture here; instead, there are comfortable chairs, creaky wooden tables, and shelves of books, both old leather-bound tomes and colorful new releases. At times, the space is quiet, a welcome change from the bustle of the street below. More and more frequently, though, the library is filled with the voices of the greater New Haven community: teenagers and adults, actors and musicians, students and writers, amateurs and experts. Deeply committed to serving New Haven, and far more than a collection of books, the Institute Library serves a vital community function as a creative space for the generation of rich conversations, meaningful interactions, and compelling new ideas.

The Institute Library’s commitment to community-based public programming has deep roots in its organizational history. Founded in 1826 as the Young Men’s Institute, the library began as a collective endeavor, the creation of eight young apprentice laborers who were interested both in pooling their money to buy books and in creating a space in which to debate the day’s most contentious issues. The idea proved popular: by 1828, a group of local women had asserted their right to join the organization. As it grew in size and ambition over the next several decades, the library called several different locations home around downtown New Haven, ultimately settling at its current Chapel Street address in 1878. During these years, it also established a reputation as an environment welcoming of radical thinkers and innovative ideas. As Jack Hitt, a dedicated current member of the library and organizer of its popular “Amateur Hour” program, puts it, the library functioned as a space for “unusual and radical clashes of ideas and people.” As a popular stop on the Lyceum Circuit — a regional network of organizations which hosted talks by prominent speakers — it was the site of speeches by eminent nineteenth-century Americans including Frederick Douglass, Anna E. Dickinson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. We often lionize these figures today, but at the time, their views provoked serious controversy: legend has it that when Douglass spoke at the library, tensions were so high that armed guards (perhaps the librarians themselves) were posted at the corners of Chapel Street. We can imagine that residents of the Elm City, roused by the passionate oratory of these speakers, regarded the Institute Library as a space valuable not only for the books it housed, but also for the provocative ideas those books contained and the vibrant debates they provoked.

Yet this vibrant stage of the library’s institutional life was not to last. According to Natalie Elicker, the library’s executive director, the twentieth century was, in general, a period of relative inactivity and decline. When the organization hired its first professional librarian, William A. Borden, in 1910, he decided to reorient the library to focus upon the books themselves. In addition to developing his own idiosyncratic cataloging system (still in use today, complete with Borden’s original, handwritten cards), Borden devoted his energies to building as strong a collection as possible. Public programming, so vital to the organization’s early years, fell by the wayside, and the library experienced a corresponding decline in membership. At the same time, the New Haven Free Public Library, founded in 1887, continued to expand its offerings, perhaps becoming a more appealing option for local residents.

Over a century after Borden refocused the mission of the library from intellectual discussions and debates to the books themselves, conversation and community have again become essential. On a recent chilly Thursday, Ann Marrow, a library volunteer, turns to the six people sitting around the Institute’s table for tea, and announces: “This is not a library where you’re going to be shushed! If you want to read a book in silence, you’re going to have to go to the back!” Marrow, with a laugh, then returns to the lively conversation about New Haven’s unique architecture now escalating at her table.

In 2011, then-executive director Will Baker looked to the Institute Library’s past as the roadmap to its future. It became clear that many of the community space’s historic activities actually resonated with the desires of modern Elm City dwellers. Baker put an emphasis on public outreach and on using the physical space of the library to host diverse programming. When Elicker replaced Baker last year, she made it a goal to continue his legacy. Today, the library hosts events ranging from the monthly “Amateur Hour,” which spotlights eccentric thinkers, to a recurring free storytelling workshop, to meetings held by the youth-led LGBTQ education and advocacy group Kickback. The library is currently working to diversify the cross section of Elm City residents who attend its programming, and recent events have attracted a substantial number of non-members. The members themselves are also a diverse bunch: a mixture of what Elicker calls the “old-timers” and an increasingly large group of younger people. Although a robust membership is vital to the library’s survival (there are just under 500 members at present), membership fees play only a small role in helping the library continue to operate on a day-to-day basis. When Elicker imagines the future of the library, she pictures the library expanding its special collections and the space becoming the site of “cool casual weddings,” yet a decisive factor determining how the library will evolve is still financial viability.

For Jack Hitt, the organizer of “Amateur Hour,” it is of the utmost importance that the Institute Library raise enough money to ensure its survival. He believes that the space fulfills a needed role in New Haven’s changing community landscape. Emphasizing that we spend all too much time experiencing reality “through a computer glass,” Hitt believes that a space like the library, which allows individuals to become part of a community “not of your own devising,” is and will always be attractive. Hitt and Elicker, as well as the space’s devoted members, all agree that the purpose of the library is centered upon the diverse, multifaceted community it creates. “Part of the function of the library is to burst the bubble of gathered people and information that’s all very like-minded,” Hitt muses. The Institute Library, particularly through its programming, creates a space for writers, construction workers, financial advisers, eccentrics, fanatics, and scholars to step outside of their comfort zones and engage in critical thought and debate. Like the community libraries that Ben Franklin envisioned centuries ago, the Institute Library, according to Hitt, “still carries forward that sense of self-improvement. It feels like you’re doing your homework for all the right reasons.” In a society where physical books and membership libraries are becoming increasingly rare, the welcoming and nonjudgmental atmosphere of the Institute Library ensures that this space will never become irrelevant.

Slideshow photography by Sarah Eckinger, Shizue RocheAdachi, and Philip B. Rosenthal.