Along with the Senior Societies of Yale, New Haven is host to a few other private clubs of note: the Quinnipiack Club (a clone of White's, Boodle's and other London clubs) and, older by far, and more curious, The Institute Library.
Dating from 1826, the Institute was formed as a way for young men who weren't able to attend college (due to financial or other reasons) to nonetheless get an education, through reading, discussion groups, lectures and the like. A local epicenter of intellectual and social activity and reform, visitors included Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederick Douglass and many of the Abolitionist and Feminist movements (women were first admitted from 1835 onwards). In 1878, the Library moved to its present location in its own building on Chapel Street, where it now appears as a doorway with a bin for book returns, above an Asian-run jewelry store.
Inside, it's as if the clock had been turned back about sixty years: there's still a card catalog (using a system that they tell me is found no other place in America, but is prevalent in India). Accounts are kept in ink, by a variety of sprightly old women, and it somehow comes as no surprise that a Time Magazine, casually lying on a table, celebrates the Victory over Japan. A comfy chair stands by a tall window, and there's a second reading room in the rear, where a round table surrounded by Windsor chairs, is surveyed by plaster busts of various worthies. For those whose interests lie in New Haven Colony history, 19th century literature and the like this place is a goldmine.
Unfortunately, for someone trying to actually 'improve their mind' in the 19th century sense in the modern world, the place is, to put it bluntly, frustrating. Most of the books from the 20th century are titles that my grandmother would have liked (and not a few that I remember her owning) -- gently Establishment light reading about antiques, humor, mysteries, and the like. After asking for a book about drawing, I got a circa 1950 "step by step" book, the kind that tells you how to draw cute little Mexican kids by doing exactly what the artist is doing in the book. For someone who was looking for something more like "The Natural Way to Draw" this was not useful! Neither do they have anything like a good basic art book about da Vinci, or even a World Art Survey, and a search for The Oxford Book of English Verse or even Palgrave's Golden Treasury turned up with nothing. (However, they do have Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf.) Apparently, somewhen around a hundred years ago, The Institute became more "social for people who already have degrees" than "informative for those without", and with the decline of the New England Establishment, the Institute has fallen into decadence and stagnation.
However, a fresh breeze is blowing: the Institute now offers free Wi-Fi, and is attempting to regain its status as an alternative learning institution, through a newly remodeled lecture hall and Lounge, patronage of groups such as The New Haven Guild of Naturalists, and the establishment of a private Wunderkammer-like museum. (Steampunks are also welcome.) Membership $25/year.
The Institute marches on...