Room with a View

A t Ives Main Library, there’s a tall airy space behind the checkout desk, encased in red walls and glass. Open during strange, limited hours and filled with thousands of items, its purpose is ultimately about one thing: understanding New Haven.

It’s the library’s Local History Room, and Allison Botelho has been its reference librarian for most of its existence. The LHR, she says, was created during a renovation of the library in 1990, when the space was set aside for its current purpose.

It houses three main collections: books about New Haven and the surrounding area; newspaper clippings filed into rows and rows of gray boxes, which Botelho considers the LHR’s most valuable resource; and a cache of civic documents produced by city government over the years. There are also stacks of maps, photographs, postcards and playbills, good for a more visual look at the history of the city.

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Botelho offers special praise to the past librarians who painstakingly clipped, pasted and sorted newspaper reports for future library-goers. “It’s got a lot of New Haven Register articles in it, which is really important to us because there’s not great access to the Register for some periods,” she says. “There was no internet then… [The librarians] looked through the paper every day. It was quite an endeavor, and they did that for decades.” The timeline of the clippings collection, she tells me, ranges from the 1930s to the 1980s, and is predominantly focused on New Haven; out of hundreds of boxes, I see only a handful dedicated to Connecticut in general.

The files recount stories on things as varied as infant mortality and the International Festival of Arts and Ideas. The main users of the clippings, Botelho says, are college students and genealogists. City planning students might seek information on New Haven’s mid-century redevelopment period, often considered a case study in what not to do, while genealogists, professional or otherwise, might come to find out information about New Haven ancestors. Sometimes, Botelho adds, former New Haveners come in, homesick for a changed city. “They love looking at pictures of New Haven of yore,” she says.

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Sometimes the questions come from far away, tasking Botelho with finding the answers. “Somebody in Texas had a New Haven ancestor who had three ships that were lost in the Revolutionary War, so I researched that,” she offers as an example. Botelho is a sort of living card catalogue for the contents of the LHR; while the books have been added to the library system’s online database, it’s a bit harder to search for specific details. “A lot of it depends on my knowledge of the collection,” she confirms. “I’ve been the local history librarian since 1998. So sometimes I can just go to a shelf and pick up the book I want to check.”

The Local History Room is usually very quiet, with one long table reserved for people using the collection’s books and papers. Botelho says she finds the work both peaceful and fun. “I love doing reference work and I love helping people find information. And lucky for me, this is kind of an oasis of reference work in the library. A lot of the questions people used to ask us,” she says, referring to the queries that would engage librarians at the general information desk, “have now dried up because people are using the internet.”

Worth noting are the LHR’s very unusual hours. Almost every day it’s open, it keeps different ones: Monday 5:30 to 8 p.m., Tuesday 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Wednesday 2 to 5:30 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Friday 2 to 5 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to noon. Botelho says the idea is to offer at least some hours each week that can accommodate almost any schedule, while taking into account the library’s limited ability to staff it.

During a tour, Botelho shows me some of the collection’s bounty. There are massive maps of New Haven, printed in 1924, that were kept current through 1956 thanks to artfully drawn slips of paper, glued where there were changes in the fabric of the city. There’s a century-old postcard of the library, printed not long after the current library was constructed. There’s a vintage photograph of Church Street in 1960, recognizable even today. There’s a fragile book of sermons printed in New Haven during the late 1700s.

For those just starting to look into the history of the city, Botelho recommends the “very authoritative” book Three Centuries of New Haven by Rollin G. Osterweis (1953). The LHR has it on one of its shelves, of course, along with a quiet spot to ponder the city’s past.

Local History Room at Ives Main Library
133 Elm St, New Haven (map)
Mon 5:30-8pm, Tues 10am-1pm, Wed 2-5:30pm, Thurs 10am-1pm, Fri 2-5pm, Sat 10am-noon
(203) 946-8130

Written by Anne Ewbank. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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A California native and world traveler, Anne came to New Haven for graduate school and discovered that New England is as cold as everyone said it was. She loves reading books, playing guitar, exploring new towns and taking road trips but only as long as she gets to pick the music.

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