“History at every turn”

{Past presidents guarding the quiet area at the library}

A Brief History

New Haven Town Green, ca. 1830s Engraving by Institute Librarian John W. Barber

In August 1826, eight young working men met at the home of Mr. Albert Wilcox in New Haven and founded the Apprentices’ Literary Association, an educational society dedicated to the “mutual assistance in the attainment of useful knowledge” through a shared book collection and weekly discussion meetings.

Mechanic Library Society bookplate, ca. 1794 — The Mechanic Library Society was a notable predecessor of the Institute Library in New Haven.

The activities of the young men, who evidently had established their organization free of any guiding patron or benefactor, soon began to attract the interest and aid of local educators, and classes were added to the readings and debates already taking place. In 1835, the Association opened its doors to women, and for the next several decades, the organization flourished as the democratic heart of intellectual life in New Haven.

The New Haven Young Men’s Institute, as the organization was named in its state charter of 1841, was long a democratic center of literary culture, adult education, and civil discourse in New Haven, offering classes, debates, and popular lectures for men and women of different social and economic backgrounds. A rare refuge in New Haven for advocates of women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery, the library attracted such notable progressive speakers as Henry Ward Beecher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Anna E. Dickinson, and Frederick Douglass. It has occupied its present home at 847 Chapel Street since 1878.

William A. Borden Card Catalog

After the establishment of the New Haven Free Public Library in 1887, the Institute Library began to withdraw from the public life of the city and focus primarily on expanding and circulating its collection of general-interest and popular literature. The librarian during this period, William A. Borden, made use of the Institute Library as a laboratory in which to experiment with new library technologies and practices. Within months of his initial engagement, he developed a new classification system for the library’s collection, which is unique to the Institute Library and remains in use today, together with Borden’s original card catalog.

Institute Library (New Haven) lectures, 1860

In 1910, Borden accepted an invitation from the progressive Indian prince, Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III of Baroda, to create and direct a free public library system for the people of his state. Following the departure of Borden for India, the Institute Library turned further inward, prompting the Centennial Committee in 1926 to comment on its diminished role in the community: “We are practically a circulating library with certain features and privileges of a club, marking time, as it were, till we see the light of a real purpose, some real niche in the city which we can fill.”

The fortunes and membership of the library rose and fell in the decades that followed, but the library persisted, preserving its historical character throughout and always maintaining the most affordable possible annual fee for members.

For more information, read Librarian William A. Borden’s 1904 Historical Sketch, the Centennial Committee’s 1926 Report, and a description of our recent history.