It is Alex Carrillo’s ’16 first time.
He hands his two frayed hardbacks to Renate Recknagel, who takes record of them and tells him he can keep them for two weeks. Carrillo asks when the books were last checked out. “1969,” Recknagel replies, nonchalant.
Carrillo’s eyes get a little wider. “I’ll take good care of them,” he promises. Recknagel smiles, he does not look worried.
I am alone with the two of them in the Institute Library — a 189-year-old membership library on Chapel Street, sandwiched tightly between a tattoo parlor and Nim’s Jewelry Store. Formerly known as the Young Men’s Institute, the Institute Library has occupied this building since acquiring it in 1878.
I walk into the reading room and turn on the ceiling lamps by pulling the dangling tassels that hang at eye level. They evoke antique furniture and dust. Many visitors have characterized the library as “frozen in time,” or an access point to the past, and in some sense this is true: The last person to check out Carrillo’s books did so more than four decades ago, and the reading room is silent, dark and decidedly old. But it is not dead; signs of life stir. The tassels sway whimsically for several minutes after I pull them, like a hypnotist’s watch. And what of the books?
Enticing subjects call out from the thicker spines on the shelves: “The Power Game,” “The Money Culture,” “Justice.” “Mind,” “Habit,” “Plato.” There are biographies, too: Shakespeare, Thoreau, Truman, Kennedy, Oprah and two each on Barbara and Laura Bush.
I pull out an album of Institute Library documents from 1826–1896. Article I of the Institute’s Constitution appears again and again, in recorded speeches and in frayed newsletters: “The object of this institute is mutual assistance in the attainment of useful knowledge.”
* * *
Fewer than 20 membership libraries like this remain open in North America. Founded in the 18th and 19th centuries, before the advent of the public library system, they provided a means for the middle class to pool resources and gain access to reading materials.
In the beginning, members would donate their own books and pay 25 cents per month to gain access to a borrowing collection as well as a community. But the need for this sort of library diminished as the public system grew, causing the demise of nearly every single subscription library in the nation.
Richard Wendorf has edited two books on membership libraries in the United States. There has been, he says, a “dramatic” decline in what was once a pillar of intellectual life for the middle class.
This makes sense; after all, why would someone choose to pay for a library with a smaller collection than one they have free access to? It is almost more surprising that any membership library has held on.
The Institute Library has done so only by constantly finding new ways to serve its lasting mission. Over its nearly two-century life, it has functioned as a library as well as a debate hall, a lecture space, a social spot and a classroom.
Following the foundation of the New Haven Public Library in 1887, book lending at the Institute Library took a backseat to the more communal aspects of its identity, and it became a vibrant space for discourse. Throughout the course of the 19th century, famous American minds like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Anna E. Dickinson and Henry Ward Beecher came to speak. At one point, it hosted between 600 and 700 classes a year as well as regular debates.
But over the course of the 20th century, this activity slowed to a stop. Membership numbers sunk, budgets deflated and outreach slowly diminished. Will Baker, the library’s director from 2011 through last spring, said that this shift occurred gradually as the notion of a library as a place for silence and solitude spread.
President of the library’s Board of Directors Greg Pepe said that when he joined the board of the library in the 1990s, the place was “moribund.” When he became president in 2008, there were only 175 members. But today, he said, there are well more than 500, who pay dues ranging from $25 per year for an “Apprentice”-level membership to $125 a year for “Patron” status.
Pepe and others credit this revitalization largely to Baker.
“For a good part of the ’80s and ’90s, the place just sort of sat there,” longtime New Haven resident, Institute Library member and Deputy Chief Communications Officer for the Yale Office of Public Affairs and Communications Michael Morand ’87 said. “And then Will came in, and it was like he threw open the doors and shouted, ‘We’re here!’”
Baker collaborated with the Board of Directors to breathe new life and money into the organization. He opened the space up to the public with events, fundraisers, guest speakers, programs and a new gallery on the third floor, which had been closed for 40 years.
Baker, the Board and members agreed — although Baker said that some met the idea with hesitation — that books alone could not keep the Library alive.
Although Morand said that books “always will be core in what distinguishes this from a coffee shop or a performance hall,” he added that “it became clear that they are not enough.”
In fact, Morand said that “library” might not be the best word to describe the Institute Library’s activities today. Rather, he suggested the term “athenaeum,” which connotes intellectual discourse and a community of learners in addition to a research and reading space. It’s a name that other membership libraries, like the Boston Athenaeum, have adopted.
“The value of membership is not merely in the printed texts,” he said. “It’s really a mental gymnasium.”
Pepe believes people yearn for the social interaction and intellectual exchange that the revitalization has fostered.
“To have 300 percent growth in our membership over the last four to five years means that there’s still a place for us to have meaningful conversations within the fabric of our city,” he said.
The library’s balance sheets back up his assertion that the new approach has attracted new attention: In a period of just a couple of years, the Library’s revenue — the money made from membership, fundraising and gifts — went from $6,700 to about $110,000.
“There was something really heroic about that 19th century mission,” Baker said. “We just had to rediscover what it was.”
* * *
Perhaps the most successful new program is Amateur Hour, curated by acclaimed writers and New Haven residents Jack Hitt and Joshua Foer ’04.
The program brings in often-eccentric experts to speak on a wildly varying array of fields: There has been a been a vampire hunter, a master origamist, a phony psychic and the inventor of a made-up language called “Ithkuil.”
And Pepe recalled the shocked — and, for many, convinced — looks of awe around the room when a visiting Harvard physicist described his theory of the possibility of time travel.
At another point, a husband-wife team of taxidermists from Massachusetts drove in to give a talk to a sold-out crowd. Armed with their knowledge and a set of carcasses, the couple sat before the crowd, perhaps in the very spot Dickinson or Douglass occupied 150 years before them. With their backs to books that hadn’t been checked out since 1969 or 1935, they began to stuff the dead bodies. Jaws dropped.
These strange spectacles have attracted a diverse but dedicated following. Shizue RocheAdachi ’15, who is the audio editor for Amateur Hour, said that the typical crowd for a show is a combination of “middle-aged patrons who sit in the front, and then a significant number of bedraggled-looking twenty-somethings.” Hitt says his audience is drawn from the “NPR crowd.”
RocheAdachi, for one, got involved through her work with the Yale Farm, which contributes to the Institute Library’s now-annual pig roast (another initiative of Hitt’s).
During the several hours necessary to prepare the pig, RocheAdachi told Hitt about her previous radio experience. Hitt was in need of an audio editor to record the shows for transcription in the Virginia Quarterly Review, and soon thereafter RocheAdachi began audio editing for Amateur Hour as a volunteer. She now does the work for hire.
As soon as she saw the space, RocheAdachi says, she fell in love. She was drawn to its “slow tempo” and its isolation; despite the library’s proximity to campus, RocheAdachi is one of only a handful of members who are Yale undergraduates. Yet she says there is a “neighborliness” among patrons: After every Amateur Hour, she says, someone approaches her to chat.
RocheAdachi said that she enjoys how the Institute Library connects her to New Haven through a channel other than Yale. And for its part, the Institute Library, under Baker and his successor Natalie Elicker, has made a conscious decision to become a more integral part of the New Haven community.
“The library has really contributed to the renaissance of New Haven,” Morand said, explaining that its presence is one of the cultural assets that make New Haven an exceptional small city.
“In recent years, New Haven has become a sort of ‘collaboratory,’” he added. “By which I mean there’s a real culture of people coming together and cooperating, and of cultural organizations supporting each other.”
Last year, the New Haven Review merged with the Institute Library and is now an official library publication, a relationship that Pepe called “perfect.” KickBack, an LGBTQ support group for local teenagers and young adults, now has its weekly meetings in the building.
All of this collaboration makes for a more social space, which Baker says was his original goal.
He recalls one lecture by the leader of Ballet Haven, a local non-profit offering rigorous ballet classes for at-risk grade schoolers. An Institute Library member, a female engineer, attended the event and met one of Ballet Haven’s young dancers, a Kenyan immigrant who aspired to become an engineer herself. They organized a coffee date.
“The library should be a social space that encourages serendipitous interaction and coincidences,” Baker said. “These people came together and made connections and shared ideas. And who knows? Hopefully that young girl and the woman who spoke with her are still having coffee.”
Mutual assistance in the attainment of useful knowledge: The library’s mission endures.
* * *
On the third Thursday of every month, the Poetry Institute — another local group — hosts an open mic and poetry reading in the Institute Library. They have done so consistently for the last seven years, although Mark McGuire-Sanchez, one of the Poetry Institute’s hosts, suspects that they may have missed just one, because of weather.
On this Thursday, there are close to 40 gathered in the reading room. Maybe half a dozen of us are under the age of 55. Institute Library volunteer Frank Cochran LAW ’69 is in the front row, and he tells us about the library, encouraging everyone to apply for membership and donate to the capital campaign.
“The place was a really venerable institution until about 1910,” he says. “And then it stalled a bit — until very recently.”
He says it’s “a place for books, and not for Kindle readers,” although he’s sure to add the caveat that plenty of new literary material has been added in recent years. Then he sits down, and the open mic begins.
The poems are riddled with references: to Darwin, the Brontes, General Patton and El Greco. In his own poem, Cochran recalls listening to jazz while reading a book checked out from the Institute Library. Gazing at the stacks behind him, I wonder which book it was — and how long it will be until the next person checks it out.