The Institute Library – New Haven, Connecticut - Atlas Obscura

The Institute Library

One of America's oldest private membership libraries was long one of New Haven's best kept secrets. 

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Founded in 1826 by a group of mechanics for the purposes of “mutual assistance in the attainment of useful knowledge,” Institute Library in New Haven is one of the nation’s last remaining private membership libraries.

For much of the 19th century, the Institute Library was the democratic heart of intellectual and cultural life in the city of New Haven, and a counterpoint to the stuffy academics down Chapel Street at Yale University. Henry Ward Beecher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Anna E. Dickinson, and Frederick Douglass all spoke at the Institute Library during the 19th century. 

After the founding of the city’s first public library in 1887, the Institute Library’s profile began to shrink. For much of the 20th century, the library underwent a period of benign neglect and was only open for several hours a week. For decades, it was considered New Haven’s best-kept secret. Today it is undergoing a renaissance of renewed membership, with a busy calendar of cultural programming.   

The library is notable for its unique card catalog and organizational scheme, which is based not on Dewey decimals, but rather on a proprietary (and eccentric) system invented by the turn-of-the-century librarian William Borden. Under Borden’s scheme, fiction is categorized by its subject matter, and books on nihilism and socialism share a common call number.

In 1910, Borden traveled to Indian state of Baroda at the invitation of the reigning raj, with the assignment of creating a free public library system. He brought with him the Institute Library’s classification system. The state of Baroda was the only other place in the world to ever pick up on Borden’s unique method of cataloging books. Though it is no longer in use in Baroda, Borden’s classification system remains in use at the Institute Library, as does his original card catalog.  

Introductory Membership at the Institute Library costs $30 per year (allows you to take books out of the library). At no cost, visitors may browse, study, or take a tour. Also free is the monthly emailed Newsletter, which gives info on Special Events and Activities at the Library, including Jazz Nights, Art Gallery events, etc.To enter, ring the buzzer at the door next to the Devil’s Gear Bicycle Shop for the librarian to grant access. The library is housed on the second and third floors of the building.

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May 15, 2014

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