New Haven is home to one of the last remaining membership libraries in North America. The Young Men's Institute Library hired a new executive director in February, and hopes to become the center of community life it was nearly 200 years ago.
Tucked between a vacant storefront and a tattoo parlor in the Young Men's Institute Library in New Haven would be easy to miss. But on a recent Saturday morning, volunteers could be found renovating the unused top two floors of the library.
Yale student Hilary Camblos is one of more than 300 members who pay $25 for a year's access to the collections. She arrived early to help on the third floor. "Earlier this morning we were cleaning what looked like maybe soot or air pollution off of the ceilings and the walls up here. It's probably been 40 years since anybody used this room."
The library has the feel of a secret space, hidden from the world. A flight of stairs off the street leads to an expansive, high ceilinged reading room, lined with shelves of old books and magazines, a fireplace and winged armchairs.
Will Baker is the new executive director of the library, and says one of the best, and worst, things about the library is that it hasn't changed in years. "Walking into this space is like encountering an insect in amber in a lot of ways."
The library opened in 1826 as a literary escape for working class people, and opened to women in 1835. "From that point through the 1850's, it was really the democratic heart of intellectual discourse and life in New Haven."
In its early days, the library hosted lectures by Henry Ward Beecher, Frederick Douglass and Charles Dickens. But by the 1900s, facing competition from the New Haven Free Public Library, it had faded largely from public view. When its endowment plunged during the recent recession, Baker was brought in to shake things up. "I think now, in 2011, there's a real hunger for face to face interaction and for more civil discourse as well," he says.
In an age of online social networking, he says, the library is a welcome alternative for New Haven residents. "It is a place where people can have unexpected encounters with one another. And hopefully we'll be able to have more of those encounters soon, when we start having more of a multi-use space."
Baker plans to re-introduce lectures, debates and exhibits. Membership has increased by sixty percent since he started and though the library is struggling for money, he hopes New Haven residents will recognize its value and work to keep it alive. The library's continuity of space and place through the generations is something you just don't encounter very often, he says.