Yale Press director John Donatich on public libraries and New Haven past and present

The Yale University Press (YUP) and the New Haven Free Public Library (NHFPL) are the nearest of neighbors — with the press headquartered on Temple Street near Elm Street right across from the Ives Memorial Library, the heart of the city’s library system.

Like a good neighbor, the press and its people actively support the NHFPL’s mission “to ensure that all of New Haven’s citizens have full and unlimited access to information and knowledge.”

The YUP plays a key role in Yale’s core mission of “improving the world today and for future generations through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice” by publishing “books and other materials that further scholarly investigation, advance interdisciplinary inquiry, stimulate public debate, educate both within and outside the classroom, and enhance cultural life.”

For more than two decades, the press has contributed its books to the NHFPL. The professional librarians at the NHFPL are welcome to select any new titles and any books from the YUP’s extensive back list, and the press provides them for free.

The staff of the Yale University Press are also active citizens of New Haven, starting with its director, John Donatich, who has led the press since 2003. For the past nine years, Donatich has devoted substantial time in civic service as a member of the NHFPL’s board of director, including many years as the public library’s volunteer treasurer.

YaleNews caught up with Donatich recently to discuss public libraries and New Haven.

You devote a lot of time in civic service to the New Haven Free Public Library (NHFPL). Why do public libraries matter?

My time spent devoted to the board of the NHFPL is nothing compared to the gifts public libraries have given me. I grew up a first generation American, the son of two immigrants from a war-torn Europe. I was a bookish kid and read voraciously; the library was a bridge from the historical eviction my parents experienced and the promise of the new world they came to. My great uncle, a longshoreman with little education, would walk me to the library several times weekly. We’d bring home piles of books. I loved everything about them: the smell of the paper, the marginalia of readers who’d been there before me. I’d read to him sometimes; he in turn taught me obscure rope knots! My sister and I used to even “play library,” organizing our books on our basement shelves, improvising checkout slips from the paper statements from our local bank. We were both little bureaucrats. Actually reading the books allowed us to think bigger.

What aspects the NHFPL do you think should be better known?

While upholding the traditional values of a repository of knowledge and intellectual assets available to all, the library is a vital center for children, teens, and their families; people doing private research on public computers; a technology center; a critical warming station for city workers in winter; a resource for homeless people,;even a counsel for helping prepare tax returns. I still visit the library weekly and am astonished by how wide a range of services across many interests and needs the library provides across five branches.

What are your hopes for New Haven and its public library system in the years ahead?

There is much discussion in publishing these days about open access, minimal gatekeeping, self-publishing. I always felt that the library itself provided the answer to many of these open questions.

How have you seen the New Haven community develop during the dozen-plus years you have been here?

I love the cosmopolitan, diverse, and rich life of New Haven. We raised a daughter here who benefitted from the character of the city. You can eat well here, see great theater, and hear great music. It’s also a great city to get serious in. I published two books while living in New Haven.

New Haven is a city of strong neighborhoods. What do you most cherish about your neighborhood, Westville?

I lived in East Rock for several years and then moved to Westville. They have many things in common, but I do feel that they are very different parts of the city as well. I love how the sidewalks are always populated; the dog life is very social in our neighborhood. Despite the green lawns and sidewalks, you know you belong to a city.

What are some other favorite places around New Haven?

We walk a lot: East Rock, West Rock, the blue trails behind the Thomas Darling house. I love Edgewood Park and Edgerton Park as well — the formality of the gardens and the “allotments” of the shared plots. It feels almost like a European community garden.

I’m embarrassed by the richness of the food here. My favorite food is Italian and we debate the virtues of the various choices: the refinement of L'Orcio, the exuberance of Basta, the irony of Goodfellas, the abundance of Adriana’s, the binary logic of Tarry Lodge. I could go on …

The Yale University Press has many distinctions, including being one of the top publishers of art and architecture books. How do you see New Haven itself as a center of art and architecture?

We published Paul Goldberger’s “Why Architecture Matters,” and he confesses to having been too much of a snob to let himself enjoy the “ersatz” Gothic of Yale’s campus. But he understood later, before it was too late, that you come here to indulge the fantasy of a faraway land where your quest is knowledge. And it has a sense of humor too. I bring out-of-town friends to New Haven often and give them my own architectural tour of the city and the Yale campus. I always watch for the goose bumps in Battell, Beinecke, even the Press’ own glorious offices.

What’s on your summer reading list?

The list is way too long to accomplish over the summer but I’ll start with Paula Fox, Amy Bloom, Don Delillo in fiction; in nonfiction, “A Face in the World” by Laura Cummings, a collection of essays by John Berger, and “Negroland” by Margo Jefferson (which won a National Book Critics Circle award). From Yale University Press, “The Slave’s Cause” by Minisha Sinaha, “An American Genocide” by Ben Madley, and a Neil Gabler bio of Barbra Streisand.

Apizza: Which place is your favorite?

I love apizza and would pledge my loyalty to any of the big four – Pepe, Sally’s, Modern, Bar –on any day of the week, but stray to a good New Jersey style of pie at Michelangelo’s, which has the advantage of being a 1/4 mile from my house.

Editor’s note: The major contributions Yale makes to a strong New Haven often attract attention, from the $8.2 million Yale voluntary payment to city government, to funding for the New Haven Promise scholarship, or the Yale Homebuyer Program.

Amidst such signature contributions, there are also scores of connections Yale people, programs, schools, and departments sustain with New Haven neighbors. These efforts are essential elements in the renaissance of "town-gown" relations in recent decades.

YaleNews will be showcasing more of these stories of Yale and New Haven and would welcome reader suggestions for people and programs to profile in the comings months. You can contact us via email at news@yale.edu