“Not like other libraries”: How a 197-year-old private library in New Haven survives
Ahead of a $1.72 million renovation project, The New Haven Institute Library, one of twenty remaining membership libraries in the United States, talks historic preservation and library funding.
Hannah Kotler, Contributing Photographer
Books in the New Haven Institute Library are cataloged on cursive handwritten index cards, which are then organized alphabetically in a wooden cabinet.
The New Haven Institute Library is one of 20 private, membership-based libraries left in the country. Kevin McCarthy, who has volunteered at the library for eight years, explained that they use a cataloging system unique to the library, developed by a colleague of Melvil Dewey as an alternative to the Dewey Decimal System. The system at the Institute Library was implemented elsewhere only briefly in India, according to McCarthy.
“It’s a curiosity,” McCarthy said about the catalog of index cards. “It gives a sense of serendipity in which searching things up online doesn’t have.”
The library is hidden behind a tiny storefront on Chapel Street, at the top of a stairway. On a tour through the library, beginning on the second floor of the building, McCarthy showed the main reading room and a secluded reading room in the back. On the third floor, the building holds a small art gallery open to the public and a room decked with records, where members gather weekly for “Friday Happy Hour Jazz.”
The library currently has 220 members who pay a membership fee of $30 per year. Despite the library’s limited collection compared to online databases and public resources, members gain access to more than the collection alone. Operations manager Eva Geertz told the News that members are drawn to the physical space in addition to the collection. These members range from teenagers to young mothers, locals and commuters from Wallingford and Fairfield.
“This is not a place brightly lit and sterile,” said Geertz. “This place has a sort of lived-in vibe, for the simple reason that it is. This isn’t fakery that we’re putting on. This place is not a costume. High school students could easily be hanging out at the public library, but I think they feel that it’s too public. They want to feel that they have their secret place.”
Frederick Douglass and Charles Dickens
Founded in 1826 by a group of young men, the Institute Library predates the country’s first public libraries. The library was established as an intellectual center at a time when large collections of books were usually only held by exclusive universities. The library hosted Frederick Douglass, Charles Dickens and a selection of well-known speakers throughout the 19th and 20th century. Originally named The Young Men’s Institution, the Institute Library opened to women a decade later, just as the first women’s college in the country was founded.
Janice Swiatek, executive director of the Library, mentioned the library’s historic inclusivity while speaking with the News.
“Will Baker, the former executive director, told me that when this was named the Young Men’s Institute Library, it was back when saying ‘men’ meant all of mankind or humankind,” said Swaitek. “So it never excluded women. Women were really always involved.”
The current building’s first floor is designated as a retail space to financially support the Library’s operation. This income, which was intended to cover salaries, books and utilities, is now insufficient, Geertz told the News. Consequently, the Institute Library relies heavily on membership income and donations.
Current problems and solutions
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Institute Library suffered a decrease in membership but continued operating, as Geertz put it,“by the skin of our teeth.”
“I understand the bind that public libraries are in,” Geertz continued. “When their pathetic funding gets cut further, it’s a big problem. I understand it, because I work in a place where funding exists but only in a very small, tenuous way. It’s like onion skin paper.”
Since lockdown, the Institute Library has organized events and programs to boost membership. According to McCarthy, the library recently hosted an architecture class for high school students. The library also launched the Social Justice Reader Program, in which they invite students from New Haven public high schools to conduct independent research and develop skills in writing. Seth Godfrey, head of references at the New Haven Public Library’s Elm Street branch, commended the Institute Library’s efforts at outreach and diversification.
“I think they’re sincere,” said Godfrey. “It is not just to gain points.”
Meanwhile, the Institute Library has faced aging facilities, including severe roof damage, and a recent radiator leak that flooded the second floor. In July, they received a $1.725 million grant from the state for renovations. This was a surprise, as it came years after president of the Institute Library’s board Maryann Ott submitted an appeal to Sen. Martin Looney.
Relations with public libraries
While the Institute Library celebrated its achievements, it was met with disgruntled murmurs from some New Haveners upset by the state’s choice to dedicate grant funding to a private library. Public libraries in New Haven have been unable to extend their hours to stay open on Sundays due to staffing and resource shortages.
Samantha Bailey, receptionist at the New Haven Free Public Library’s main Elm Street branch, was not familiar with the Institute Library, but emphasized that insufficient funds have been detrimental to public libraries.
“Libraries are good at optimizing funding,” explained Bailey. “The state thinks that libraries are capable of operating on minimal funding and thus doesn’t provide more.”
Bailey noted the importance of public libraries beyond servicing readers. 70 to 80 percent of visitors to the public library, she said, request tutors and social services or otherwise seek assistance with applications for IDs, legal pardon and I-90 permanent residence cards.
While staff members at the New Haven Public Library expressed disappointment in a lack of state funding for public libraries, employee Godfrey expressed support for the funding of Institute Library.
Godfrey especially commented on the Institute Library’s history, noting the attendance of Frederick Douglass.
“They’ve got history,” said Godfrey. “Two hundred years. I think just as history, that legitimizes the funding.”
Similarly, Geertz emphasized the importance of preserving a historic landmark like the Institute Library. The building that holds the Institute Library is now a rare site in New Haven, as a relic that survived the Urban Renewal movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which laid waste to thousands of similar historical buildings.
A native New Havener, Geertz expressed nostalgia for the historic New Haven, before the city was excessively commercialized. As she spoke, she pulled out an old map of New Haven from the shelf behind her.
“This building is literally a jewel,” said Geertz. “If you go up and down Chapel Street or Whalley Avenue, or Dixwell Avenue, or Orange Street, or any of the commercial corridors of New Haven, buildings like this one were once the norm. And they simply are not anymore. It’s a crying shame. I mean, they’re beautiful.”
Janice Swiatek, executive director of the Library added that the Institute Library has a responsibility to continue its founding values.
“This has always been a place for open intellectual dialogue,” she said. “Frederick Douglass spoke here, and Dickens spoke here. Not supporting this building, where all the history happened, would really deplete the energy of the neighborhood.”
Further, Geertz stated that the renovation grant extends beyond protecting the Library’s physical infrastructure, but also to preserving the literature inside. For Geertz, the preservation and continuation of the Institute Library, a private collection, represents an essential safeguard from censorship.
“I don’t take for granted the existence of public libraries.” Geertz said. “Public funding can be taken away by the City Hall or the state. We are also seeing in the news that there are actors that work to close libraries because they feel that the stuff in the libraries is not to their political taste. We can’t be closed down by people like that, this is an independent organization.”
The current building on Elm Street was purchased by the Institute Library in 1848.
Correction, Jan. 23: A previous version of this article said that the institute library was located on Elm Street. In fact, it is located at 847 Chapel Street. The article has been updated to reflect this.