History of the Trenton Free Public Library

The Trenton Free Public Library is one of the oldest libraries in New Jersey, originating in 1750 as a subscription library by Thomas Cadwalader, with Benjamin Franklin purchasing the libraries first fifty books. The library is the second oldest Free Public Library in the United States after Franklin’s own Philadelphia Free Public Library. The library organization as it is known today became incorporated in 1900 with Ferdinand W Roebling serving as its first Board President. 

Dr. Thomas Cadwalader, the first chief Burgess (similar function to a Mayor), gave 50 pounds for the establishment of the Trenton Library Company, as it was originally known. This library was almost entirely destroyed by the British and Hessian troops in December of 1776 during their occupation of the city. However, the library reemerged approximately five years later, after the surviving shareholders ran a notice in the Philadelphia newspapers on Jan 31, 1781 asking people to return any books that they might have belonging to the library. To date, three of these original books survive and are located in the special collections of Trentoniana. By 1797, the library only had holdings of 240 items.  They recommitted to building the collection and by 1804 owned 700 volumes.

As the country entered the tumultuous times of the Civil War, the library began a time of transition. The Trenton Library Company lasted until 1855 when the subscribers disbanded and transferred ownership of the collection to a new organization call the Trenton Library Association. This Association dissolved in 1860 and transferred the collection to the care of the Trenton chapter of the YMCA. In 1879 the YMCA library collection was transferred to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Four years later in 1883, the WCTA created the Union Library Company. Still based on the subscription model, the ULC charged rates that were affordable for many working class families. By 1885, the library had raised enough money to build a brownstone downtown to house the collection.

The subscription ULC struggled for the next five years. In 1900, with closure imminent, Mayor Frank Briggs placed on the ballot the issue of the creation of a public, free, tax-supported but autonomous library for all citizens of Trenton. The referendum passed overwhelmingly and the Trenton Free Public Library, as it exists today, was born. Using an appropriation from the city budget, the first Board of Trustees purchased the Union Library Company’s collection, leased its building, and hired a librarian, Adam Strohm from Chicago, a cataloger and two assistants. The Trenton Free Public Library formally opened at 120 Academy Street on Monday, June 9, 1902.  By the end of its first year the library had 9,477 library card holders and a collection of 25,562 books.

Over the following decades, the Trenton Library expanded into four additional branches.  The first branch, Briggs, was established in 1910 and was an immediate success, with 125 books borrowed in less than two hours.  The Briggs Branch, named after Frank O. Briggs, the mayor when the modern library was first organized, moved to Greenwood Ave in 1972.  The East Trenton Branch, one of New Jersey’s designated Historical Places, occupied the 18th century Dickinson mansion, a location initially turned into a library in 1926, and then restored by the Civil Works Administration in 1934. The Skelton Branch was established in 1917 at the Franklin School building, and moved to the corner of Malone and South Broad in 1929, in a beautiful building with high arched windows, an elegant staircase, and locally crafted tile work surrounding the children’s room fireplace. The Cadwalader Branch was opened in 1927, and relocated in 1968 to the old Strand Theater on North Hermitage Avenue. Like all of the branches, the Cadwalader Branch served as a vibrant community center for its neighborhood.

The Trenton Public Library has a proud history, and continues to serve its city. As with most areas of the country, Trenton has experiences difficult financial times. This resulted in budget cuts that forced the closure of our four branch facilities. Despite the setback, the Trenton Free Public Library is more committed than ever to providing excellent library service to the citizens of Trenton and is continuing to improve and add innovations everyday! 

Since its inception in 1902, the Trenton Free Public Library has been collecting and preserving bits and pieces of the city’s history. Today, more than a century later, the size and staggering diversity of this Trentoniana Collection has earned a reputation among researchers and genealogists as the premier collection devoted exclusively to Trenton’s rich past. Among its holdings are: historical records including company, school, club and tax records; letters; photographs in various formats; newspapers; diaries; and maps. Trentoniana is the starting point for researchers looking into virtually any aspect of the city’s past, and each year producers and authors acknowledge their indebtedness to Trentoniana for collecting, protecting, and preserving the primary research materials used in their books, articles and documentaries.

Many library Patrons come for traditional purposes like borrowing a book. The library circulates roughly 150,000 items annually. In addition, many patrons do not have home computers and depend on the library for computer and Internet usage, which have become necessities in their lives. The library offers 31 public computers serving as a bridge across the digital divide for Trenton’s citizens. Patrons use the computers for education, information and recreation.