In its first year, spanning 1862 and 1863, the New Haven Colony Historical Society, now known as the New Haven Museum, received some dubious gifts—“59 curiosities and relics,” to be more precise. 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 says. 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.

Today, the Whitney Library is a precious resource for local history buffs and researchers, available to anyone who schedules an appointment—just contact librarian Emma Norden at or 203-562-4183 x115 at least 72 hours in advance—and pays the $4 entry fee ($3 for seniors, $2 for students) if not already a member. 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 filled with maps, broadsides and architectural drawings anchor the room. Tall, old-fashioned card catalogs, listing every Elm City person, place and thing that earlier librarians cross-referenced from books, periodicals, manuscripts and other materials in the collection, still stand in one corner. “Some people love it,” former part-time librarian Ed Surato said, particularly “the old-timers. 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 extends into restricted back rooms, and a vault in the rear houses the start of the manuscript collections, which continue in basement storage, packed in gray archival shelf boxes. Some collections take up just one slim box. Others are more substantial, such as the Maritime Collection: “1,000 documents, 95 volumes, seven feet [and] six inches of shelf space,” according to a finding aid.

Also stashed in the library’s hidden areas is one of its most prized collections: 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. All told, the Whitney Library’s holdings span “30,000 printed works” including photographs, newspapers and microfilms, according to the New Haven Museum’s website.

Summer often brings tourists exploring both New England and their family genealogy, and when fall returns, so do college and high school students, who will soon be assigned their own research projects. Countless treasures wait to be found such as notes handwritten by Noah Webster of Merriam-Webster renown and a broadside advertising a performance by John Wilkes Booth in the role of Hamlet at the New Haven Music Hall. The Whitney Library isn’t a big space, but when you pull up a chair and start digging, the world grows large as you travel through the centuries.

Whitney Library
New Haven Museum – 114 Whitney Ave, New Haven (map)
By Appointment: Wed-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat noon-5pm
(203) 562-4183 x115 |

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. This updated story was originally published on September 27, 2018.

More Stories