I n its first year, spanning 1862 and ’63, the New Haven Colony Historical Society, now known as the New Haven Museum, received some dubious gifts—“59 curiosities and relics,” to be exact. They included “the mummy of a snake” from Thebes, “two bones with teeth attached like saw teeth” and enough pieces of the recently fallen Charter Oak “sufficient to stack a long winter’s woodpile,” according to an article in an old edition of the society’s journal.

More practically, the historical society’s library, now known as the Whitney Library, became a repository for state documents and the papers of several prominent New Haven families. Its first “notable accession,” in 1869, was the manuscript of Yale president Ezra Stiles’s History of Three of the Judges of King Charles, the article notes. However, the library didn’t truly live up to its function until two decades later, when “the books were finally catalogued” and a reading room was opened.

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Today, the Whitney Library is a precious resource for local history buffs and researchers, available to anyone willing to pay the $4 museum entry fee ($3 for seniors, $2 for students) or purchase an annual membership ($40 a year for individuals, with senior, student and household discounts). Beckoning from behind double glass doors in the museum’s lobby, the library invites a closer look with its tall, bright windows, bookshelf-lined walls and wooden study tables. Cases of shallow drawers anchor the room, filled with maps, broadsides and architectural drawings. Most of the collection hasn’t been digitized, so tall, old-fashioned card catalogs still stand in one corner. “Some people love it, the old-timers,” says Ed Surato, one of three part-time librarians. “We have a lot of younger people, students, they’ve never even seen [a card catalog].”

This public reading room, though, is less than half the story. The library’s collection of published materials runs along one side of the space, ducks into restricted back rooms, then reemerges on the other side. A vault in the rear houses the start of the manuscript collections, which continue in basement storage, all packed in gray archival shelf boxes. Some collections take up just one slim box. Others—like the Maritime Collection—are more substantial: “1,000 documents, 95 volumes, seven feet [and] six inches of shelf space,” Surato reads from the finding aids, which are bound on a shelf in the reading room and searchable online. In addition, researchers can explore the comprehensive New Haven-specific card catalog, which lists every Elm City person, place and thing that earlier librarians cross-referenced from books, periodicals, manuscripts, maps and other materials in the collection.

Also stashed in the library’s back rooms is one of its most prized collections: two cabinets filled with the life’s work of Arnold Guyot Dana, who cut items of New Haven interest from other books and publications and pasted them into 150 scrapbooks, organized by topic and location. The Dana scrapbooks have their own dedicated computer in the reading room, where visitors can scroll through the pages, but librarians will also bring out the originals for perusal.

While many researchers visit the library in person—on a busy day, 40 or 50; on a quiet day, just a few—librarians also field inquiries by email from around the country and abroad. All told, Surato says the library fields well over 100 inquiries per month. Summer brings tourists exploring both New England and their family genealogy, and as fall returns, so do college and high school students, who will soon be assigned their own research projects.

Librarians will conduct research by email and phone for a fee of $36 per hour, unless the question is quick and personal, in which case it’s gratis. “We don’t mind gathering information,” Surato says. But sometimes people—especially those working on family histories—want librarians to draw conclusions from that information. “We’re not genealogists, we’re librarians,” he says. “We own the information, and we make it accessible to you.”

But Surato doesn’t mind if people come in without a research question at all and just want to browse. Lots of treasures wait to be found: notes handwritten by Noah Webster of Merriam-Webster renown; a broadside advertising a performance by John Wilkes Booth in the role of Hamlet at the New Haven Music Hall; a facsimile of a 1641 map of the city’s original nine squares. The Whitney Library isn’t a big space, but if you pull up a chair and start digging, the world grows large around you as you travel into Elm City history.

Whitney Library
New Haven Museum – 114 Whitney Ave, New Haven (map)
Tues-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat noon-5pm, 1st Sun 1-4pm
(203) 562-4183 x15 | [email protected]

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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