“It’s time for Phase Two,” says Will Baker of his transformative work at the Institute Library on Chapel Street.
Phase One began when Baker was named to the new position of Executive Director of the 186-year-old lending library. The Institute had dwindled to less than 200 members, was open just three days a week and was running through an endowment that hadn’t grown substantially since the 19th century. The adding of a new full-time staff position caused a few murmurs in the stacks.
Yet after just twelve months behind one of the big old antique desks at this storied location, Baker has brought in over 300 new members—the largest growth spurt in the Institute’s history. He’s held book sales and fundraising parties. He’s formed alliances with like-minded book-boosting organizations such as the New Haven Review and the New Haven Free Public Library. He’s led hordes of volunteers in renovating and reopening the Institute’s long-dormant third floor space—as an art gallery curated by Stephen Kobasa. In
The Institute Library
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December, Baker received an Arts Award from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven for his efforts.
The Institute Library hasn’t had this sort of impact on local literary discourse since the 1880s, when the librarian William Borden (who, amazingly, turns out to be a distant relation of Will Baker’s) sought to make it the official public library of New Haven. Instead, with a bequest from Philip J. Marett, the city instituted its own public library system, which marks its 125th anniversary this week. The Institute Library—begun by a few studious workmen in 1826 as The Young Apprentices’ Literary Association—continued on as a clubbish salon for book-sharing and orating. It still stands apart: the books are arranged according to a unique, decidedly non-Dewey-Decimal system devised in the late 1880s by the innovative Borden.
Will Baker is well versed in the customs and
rich history of the Institute Library. He can correct or annotate some of the legends, and weed out some of the “misclassifications” which untrained librarians made using the underrated Borden system.
Part of his Phase Two as Executive Director is to restore what worked so well for the Institute Library at its peak. Baker wants to reinvigorate the quietened sitting areas as arenas of animated debate. He will create new programs and invite in a wide range of speakers, readers and performers. He’ll continue to brainstorm new fundraising concepts. He’s already begun relationships with the handful of other hardy surviving membership libraries and athenaeums around the country.
Baker rattles off items on his to-do list as if he were flipping through the card catalog documenting the 30,000 volumes in the Institute stacks. He’s looking for ways “we can serve other non-profits… Expand our educational outreach… Diversify our membership… Outreach into other neighborhoods…Bring poetry to underserved high schools…Music concerts…Formalize partnerships…Create special memberships for schools…”
What else will Will Baker do? For one, banish the phrase ‘private library’.
“This is not a private library,” he emphasizes. “This is a membership organization that serves the community at large.” Now that the Institute Library has reengaged with that community, its extraordinary Executive Director wants to restore its original goal of “intellectual and moral improvement, and mutual encouragement.”