A Cool Place to Do Cool Things

Connecticut's oldest independent circulating library is a center of culture in New Haven.
The Institute Library Executive Director Valerie Garlick. Photo by Matt Higbee.

In 1826, a group of young men who had been meeting regularly in New Haven to read their writing to each other decided to form a library association. They pooled their money to purchase books and began hosting public speaking events on a wide range of subjects, from the instructional to the political. The Young Men's Institute was born.

For the next half-century, the institute vigorously pursued its mission of "mutual assistance in the attainment of useful knowledge." In addition to circulating books before there was a city public library, it hosted talks by Henry Ward Beecher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Anna E. Dickinson, Frederick Douglass, and other famous 19th-century speakers. It was also a meeting place for abolitionists and advocates for women's suffrage.

After a relatively quiet 20th century, the Young Men's Institute, now known as the Institute Library, is once again a cultural force in New Haven. Since it hired its first executive director in 2011, the Institute Library has increased membership by four-fold and developed an expanding roster of programs that bring lively readings, discussions, exhibits, and events to its historic space on lower Chapel Street.

This fall, Valerie Garlick takes over the reigns as the library's new executive director. Garlick, the former director of the Carriage Barn Arts Center in New Canaan, learned about the library while teaching a class on digital imaging at Gateway Community College. She started bringing her students to visit on walking tours of galleries and museums in the area.

"Entering such an entrancing space and talking to the staff and volunteers, I took a strong interest in the library and its similarities with the Carriage Barn. Both have early 19th century beginnings and exist as places for lively, ongoing dialogs among the local and surrounding communities," Garlick said. "I fell in love with the idea of learning about the rich history of the Young Men's Institute and wholly supporting its operations and programmatic needs today."

Now Connecticut's oldest independent circulating library and one of the last remaining membership libraries in North America, the Institute Library hosts events such as Amateur Hour, a discussion between journalists, a featured guest, and attendees; Listen Here, a monthly, free, live short-story reading by the New Haven Theater Company; and The Word, a literacy arts program for New Haven middle and high school students and language arts teachers. On the library's top floor is the Gallery, which hosts rotating art exhibitions, lectures, book signings, and panel discussions.

"Ultimately, it's a cool place to do cool things," Garlick said.

To learn more about the Institute Library and support its mission, visit its profile on giveGreater.org®.

Did you know?

The Institute Library's unique classification system was created by its first professional librarian, William A. Borden, in 1897.

Source: Institute Library website

This story is part of the Inspiration Monday story series produced by The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.