(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Part library, part museum, part memorial to a Utopian dream, the Working Men’s Institute in New Harmony offers a unique glimpse of early nineteenth-century history and one man’s commitment to the power of knowledge.
Decades before Andrew Carnegie became a household name for his library philanthropy, a similar desire to bring knowledge to the masses prompted Scottish immigrant William Maclure to found a library for laborers in 1838. Today the New Harmony Working Men’s Institute claims distinction as Indiana’s oldest continuously operating public library.
Maclure came to New Harmony as a financial partner in Robert Owen’s Utopian experiment in the 1820s, setting up the institute after the Owenite community fell apart in 1827. He modeled the enterprise on the mechanics’ institute movement in Europe, which established lending libraries for the working class, along with venues for lectures and classes.
A provision in Maclure’s will ensured the proliferation of Working Men’s Institutes, gifting money for books to 144 communities in Indiana and 16 in Illinois. Today, the institute in New Harmony is the only remnant of Maclure’s program, with most of the book collections in other communities absorbed by local libraries.
The library carries on much as it did a century ago in its striking red brick Romanesque Revival-style building, constructed to house the institute in 1894. On the upper floor, there’s a museum filled with flora and fauna specimens collected by early residents, including a large mussel shell collection and Native American artifacts. The institute’s archive of papers from early New Harmony residents on the first floor draws research scholars from around the world hoping to learn about the town’s two attempts at communal living.
The Working Men’s Institute welcomes visitors Sunday, noon to 4 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Friday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The library is closed on Mondays. Learn more at www.workingmensinstitute.org.
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Each week Indiana Landmarks uses insider knowledge to highlight historic places worth a visit, from the quirky to the sublime: small towns, neighborhoods, restaurants, shops, parks, cemeteries, scenic drives, museums—you get the idea. Learn more about Indiana Landmarks at www.indianalandmarks.org.