Institute Library Membership in the 19th Century

“Membership is not a simple thing.  It derives, in one form or another, from the social impulse and structure that brought the libraries into existence in the first place, some 250 years ago, and the principle remains the same today.” (Nicolas Barker, America’s Membership Libraries, page 2)

There are three elements that are consistent across almost all membership libraries: shareholders (those who first found the funds that brought the library into being); members (those who pay to use the library); and the general public (those who are not members but still, in someway, engaged with the library).

The Institute Library is the only membership library in North America (that we know of) that was started by working class men instead of a guiding patron with deep pockets.  In the 19th century and into the first two decades of the 20th century, the Institute Library used a tiered membership model as a way of providing members in a more cost efficient way.  It was an active member in the community until the end of the 19th century and is now reengaging with the New Haven community.

This bookplate indicates that there were two memberships options – one that offered just the privileged of book borrowing ($3.00 per year) and the other that allowed book borrowing and the use of the library’s reading room ($5.00 per year).

An Institute Library card to use the Reading Room for only four weeks – c. 1840

Early on in the library’s existence, membership for women cost less than membership for men.  The library opened its doors to women in 1835.  This price sheet is from the 1860s.  During several decades, the Institute Library also offered life-time memberships and family memberships.

Finally, a tally of the different types of membership in 1916:

The Institute Library is returned to its founding roots by reengaging with the community starting in 2011 and July 1st, 2012, the library launched a new tiered membership model, after nearly 100 years.