Baton Passed At Institute Library

Paul Bass PhotoNatalie Elicker is stepping away from a white-shoe law firm and into one of New Haven’s refuges from the wired world.

Elicker (pictured above) is leaving her job as a litigation associate on the partner track at high-powered Wiggin & Dana—and taking what she called “a big pay cut”—to become executive director of the not-for-profit Institute Library starting May 19.

She succeeds Will Baker, who over three years revived the almost-moribund institution and transformed it into one of the city’s most vibrant, intellectually adventurous—and largely unplugged—cultural venues.

Elicker said she’s excited to build on Baker’s work, to take the library to the next step.

“I wanted to be able to build something,” Elicker said during an interview in the serene second-floor sitting room of the 188-year-old institution’s home above Nim’s Imports at 847 Chapel St., which the library has occupied since 1878.

Nineteenth-century benefactors created the private library as a place where working men could obtain books and converse about civic matters. Public libraries didn’t exist yet. In the Institute Library’s heyday, orators such as Henry Beecher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Herman Melville stopped by. The library had as many as 500 members. It hosted debates on questions like “What is the greatest evil to the public: intemperance or slavery?” And “Are novels injurious to a reader?”

By the dawn of 21st century, the library, still tucked away upstairs in its narrow lower Chapel haunt, had become virtually invisible. Membership dropped below 200. Few, if any, events took place there. It still owned the whole building, but it was tearing through its endowment just to keep the lights on. The endowment had reached $1.35 million in 2000; a decade later, it had dropped to $322,000.

Then came Will Baker, a Southern Connecticut State University library studies grad who previously worked for a rare book dealer in town. The board, seeking to resuscitate the library, hired Baker full-time to run it. He performed a miraculous turnaround. Events started taking place there all the time again, from poetry slams and “Make Haven” demonstrations to theater performances and author readings, from gallery exhibits to weekly gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender meetings.

Membership hit 500 again. (Annual fees start at $25.) And the average age of membership dropped decades, including leading literary lights from Jack Hitt to Joshua Foer. This year the New Haven Review, a literary publication that had already hosted author events there, merged with the library. And pressing questions both current and historical continue to be raised and debated within the library’s walls, such as: “Did the Malleys get away with murder?”

The best part: Baker did not install internet portals for member use. Institute Library revived not by trying to compete with the public library, which has evolved into a modern community center and needed source for public internet access. Instead, it has returned to its roots as an arts and cultural refuge, a place for reading and sharing and debating civic ideas, for understanding the world—offline.

You can unplug there, and tune into the world. (Including the Wired world, in print.)

Now Baker is moving to Pittsburgh. Enter Natalie Elicker.

She first heard about the job last December at a board meeting of the Elm City Market. It was Elicker’s first meeting as a board member. Baker (at right in photo) announced it was his last meeting. He also announced he was leaving town, with his Institute Library job opening up.

“It was a little light bulb” for Elicker.

Elicker has worked for three and a half years in Wiggin & Dana’s office, on a partnership track; she had already thought about making a move away from law. Books are in her blood. As a child in Fairfax County, Virginia, she used to raid Steinbeck and Michener novels from her dad’s home office. She majored in English in college. Her first job after college was at the University of Virginia rare book library.

“I had wondered whether being a lawyer was a right fit,” she said. “Everyone needs a lawyer; you do something important for your client. But I had questions about whether, serving that role, I was building something bigger.”

She had been “intrigued” in the library since reading about it when she first came to town in 2008. She followed up on the job opening, then got hired by the board. Baker will stay on a while to help with the transition.

Elicker, who’s 33, lives in East Rock with her husband Justin Elicker, who ran for mayor last year and now runs another not-for-profit, the New Haven Land Trust.

In her new job, Natalie Elicker said she will look into new “creative” ways to use the space, including hosting more concerts on the third floor. She’s thinking of starting with bluegrass concerts; unlike at a bar, these events can include minors in the crowd, she noted. Overall, she sees the library as a “place where people can explore,” can connect to each other in time-tested ways.“There are online forums for people to exchange ideas. What’s inspiring for people is to be together” and exchange ideas in person, she said. She noted that the Grove co-working space accomplishes that goal for tech-oriented people who otherwise work in isolation. She sees the Institute Library as serving that purpose for “artists and literary types.”

Elicker declined to disclose her current salary at Wiggin & Dana or the one she’ll receive at the Institute Library. Baker’s current annual salary is $52,000. Wiggin & Dana currently starts its layers at $110,00 a year.

One of her challenges will be raising money. In addition to supporting a $220,000 annual budget, the library needs to raise money to upgrade its building.

Board Chair Greg Pepe, who since 2008 has helped stabilize the library’s finances, predicted Elicker “is going to be a star” in the job. (He too declined to reveal her salary; the organization reports on executive salaries once a year in its federal Form 990 tax returns.) Elicker “writes well. She’s well-spoken. She conveys her enthusiasm well,” he said.

“There’s always this tension between getting someone who knows how to run a library—there were people in the applicant pool who had those qualifications. Or you pick somebody who you think has the smarts and charisma and other experiences to do all the other stuff that goes along with the institute library—the programming, the fundraising, etc.  Everything that we do that is not buying and lending out books,” Pepe said. He said Elicker falls into the latter category.

“We have two fantastic librarians there on a part-time basis,” Pepe said. I think the library is on an upward trajectory in terms of attracting new members and capturing people’s imaginations. That is because Will was able to relate the history of the library to things people are looking for now. That had little to do with lending books.”

Clearly energized by her new assignment, Elicker will be working on a vision the library recently spelled out in a statement: “the perpetuation of the modern community library as a physical place, social space, and democratic resource.”

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posted by: New Haven Nuisance on April 30, 2014  6:10pm

Congratulations Natalie! Natalie will be great in this role, she is great in everything she puts her mind to!

posted by: ChrisTheContractor on April 30, 2014  8:01pm

It is a very beautiful building. We did the storefront around 2000.
The wood is Honduran mahogany and had a marine varnish finish.
I believe that Mrs. McEwen was working there.
Good luck.

posted by: Carlos R. Galo on April 30, 2014  8:32pm

Much congratulations Natalie! You are an inspiration!

posted by: citoyen on May 1, 2014  12:37am

I had the pleasure of some brief contact with Natalie during the mayoral campaign, and can attest that she is a complete delight.

Both Elickers are clearly committed to New Haven in the best sense, wanting to help make it even better than it is, and I look forward to their added contributions to our civic life as the years go on.

Congratulations, Natalie!  Cool move!

posted by: Dan Kennedy on May 1, 2014  10:18am

I love the Institute Library. Best of luck to Natalie and Will!

posted by: KennethReveiz on May 1, 2014  1:24pm

Will Baker is a hero. Through his work and silent leadership, the Institute is home to some many vibrant, thriving communities. Will played a key role in reinvigorating the Institute but what I think has really moved me is the extent to which he has opened up opportunities for young people, people of color, and queer people to feel comfortable and flourish. There’s a strong and desperate need for this work to continue downtown. We are losing a real gem in Will Baker. Thanks for everything!!!

posted by: Nathan on May 1, 2014  2:04pm

Will Baker has been a fantastic leader at the Institute and is one of the nicest people I’ve ever been blessed to meet.  Best of luck to Ms. Elicker in the leadership position, she seems a lucky catch for the Institute and New Haven indeed.

posted by: bakerwill on May 1, 2014  5:33pm

I couldn’t be happier about Natalie’s hire and feel honored to be able to pass the baton to her.  She is bringing to the library exactly what it needs at this exciting - but still challenging - moment: initiative, intelligence, and a sincere, palpable interest in the library’s history and growing community of people that have made it what it is.

Saying goodbye to the library and everyone here with whom I’ve had the incredible good fortune to work these past few years is not easy, to say the least.  But, knowing that the next chapter will open with Natalie as executive director is a comfort matched only by the knowledge of what a wonderful community will be surrounding and supporting her as the library moves forward.  Thank you, everyone, and good luck, Natalie!

posted by: getyourfactstraight on May 2, 2014  7:06pm

Wonderful! Natalie for those who know you we are certain this will end in a fantastic success story.