History of the Trenton Free Public Library
The Trenton Free Public Library is the oldest library in New Jersey, founded in 1750 as the Trenton Library Company by Dr. Thomas Cadwalader. Benjamin Franklin is said to have purchased the library’s first 50 books. Originally a subscription library, it became incorporated as a free public library as it is known today in 1900 with Ferdinand W. Roebling serving as its first Board President.
Dr. Thomas Cadwalader, the first chief Burgess (i.e., Mayor), gave 500 pounds for the establishment of the Trenton Library Company. Housed in rented rooms and various homes of its subscribers, it was entirely destroyed by the British troops in December 1776 during their occupation of the city. It may have been located at the tavern of Rensselaer Williams at the time. The library re-emerged approximately five years later after the surviving shareholders ran newspaper notices in January 1781 asking people to return any books that they might have belonging to the library. To date, four of these original books survive and are located in the Trentoniana Department, a special collection of the library. The library was reorganized in 1797, with holdings of only 240 items. By 1804, there were 700 volumes. It is important to note that the word “library” referred to a collection of books, rather than a building that housed them.
The Trenton Library Company was a stock company following rather closely the scheme of the Philadelphia Library Company. Each subscribing member bought one or more shares of stock and paid a stated annual amount toward upkeep. The books were probably housed in a rented room which was opened at certain hours once or twice a week. The earliest known possible location of the library was at the house of William Yard in March 1759. Stacy Potts was listed as the librarian in 1765. In 1781, the annual meeting was held at the home of Renssalaer Williams, Esq., and the reorganization meeting at Drake’s Tavern in 1797.
On February 17, 1813, the stockholders petitioned for permission to build on the grounds of the governor’s mansion on West State Street. The building would be used as a library room and was not to exceed a size of 20 by 30 feet. Permission was granted, but there is no evidence that such a building was ever erected, and the library probably continued on in a rented room.
The Trenton Library Company continued to be active into the 1830’s before entering into a period of decline. On May 20, 1855, after more than a century of service, the Trenton Library Company transferred its books to the Trenton Library Association, which had been organized in 1852. First opened in the corner store of Temperance Hall (later Goldberg’s), the Library Association moved the next year to the second story of Charles Scott’s building on Greene Street (now Broad Street), just below State Street. On December 26, 1854 a fire was set in the clothing store on the first floor during a burglary, which resulted in a considerable loss for the Library Association. It was dissolved in the 1860’s and its collection transferred to the care of the Trenton chapter of the Young Men’s Christian Association which had a public reading room. In 1871 the rooms were located at 20-22 East State Street over Titus and Scudder’s dry goods store. In 1879 the YMCA library collection was transferred to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Four years later, the WCTU created the Union Library Company. Still based on the subscription model, the Union Library Company charged rates that were affordable for many working class families. By 1885, the library had raised enough money to build a brownstone to hold the collection on East State Street, adjacent to the old post office. The library was on the first floor.
With the Union Library Company starting to struggle and with closure imminent by 1900, Mayor Frank O. 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 4,482 to 1,052 votes, and the Free Public Library of the City of Trenton was born. A board of trustees was incorporated on May 15, and elected Ferdinand W. Roebling as first president. John A. Campbell (treasurer), John J. Cleary (secretary), William M. Lanning, and Joseph L. Naar rounded out the rest of the board, with Mayor Briggs and school superintendent Leslie C. Pierson serving ex-officio. Using an appropriation from the city budget, the board purchased the Union Library Company’s collection, leased its building, and hired Alice M. Rice as librarian, Louise K. Hope as assistant librarian, and Sarah C. Nelson as cataloguer. A permanent chief librarian, Adam J. Strohm from Chicago, was hired on September 1, 1901.
The board appropriated $20,000 for the purchase of a lot on Academy Street, which for more than 100 years had been the site of the Trenton Academy that had opened in 1782. Subsequent appropriations of $80,000 for the building of a permanent library and $15,000 for furnishing and equipping it were made. The architect was Spencer Roberts of Philadelphia (who would also design the new City Hall in 1907). The new library building was dedicated June 9, 1902, and was opened to the public for the distribution of books on the 11th. The program for the New Jersey Library Association’s 13th annual meeting contains a detailed description of the new building. The director of the Newark Public Library and Newark Museum, John Cotton Dana, was a featured speaker at the opening. By the end of its first year, the library had 9,477 library card holders and a collection of 25,562 books. Very soon it was evident that the new library building was too small.
Contrary to popular belief, the new library was not a Carnegie Library. Between 1883 and 1929, businessman Andrew Carnegie donated funds to construct over 2,500 libraries, but certain cities like Trenton and Newark felt that accepting this money would show that they were unable to provide for themselves. John Cotton Dana frequently encouraged against library officials asking Carnegie for money. Trenton city officials agreed with Dana, but would later ask Carnegie for funds to construct an addition to the library (Carnegie refused that request).
In 1913, John Lambert Cadwalader, great-grandson of Dr. Thomas Cadwalader, offered to build a considerable addition to the library and to make certain alterations to the original building. Interestingly, the architect chosen was Edward L. Tilton of New York, well known for designing Carnegie libraries. The completed improvements cost about $45,000, and the addition was formally dedicated on April 6, 1915. The next addition to the library would not occur until 1976 when Trenton architects Horowitz & Wirth were tasked with building the large Centennial Wing on the land adjacent to the original building where the Joseph Wood School once stood. The Wood School had served as the library’s children’s department, and before that was the site of the city’s common jail and work-house, built in 1808.
Over the following decades, the Trenton Free Public Library expanded into additional branches. The first branch was established in 1910 and was an immediate success, with 125 books borrowed in less than two hours. Named after Frank O. Briggs, the mayor when the modern library was first organized, it moved to 1115 Greenwood Avenue in 1972.
The North Branch was opened in 1914, through the cooperation of the Board of Education, in a room of the Columbus School on the corner of Brunswick Avenue and Mulberry Street. It eventually moved to 1201 Princeton Avenue.
The Skelton Branch was established in 1917 at the Franklin School building on the corner of Liberty and William Streets. In 1926, it was temporarily moved to rented quarters in the basement of St. Mary’s Greek Catholic School on the corner of Grand and Malone Streets. It moved to the corner of Malone and South Broad (#943) in 1929 into a beautiful new building with high arched windows, an elegant staircase, and locally crafted tile work surrounding the children’s room fireplace. It was the first branch to be built specifically as a library.
The East Trenton Branch, one of New Jersey’s designated Historical Places, occupied the 18th century Samuel Dickinson mansion on the corner of North Clinton and Girard Avenues. It was turned into a library in 1926, and restored by the Civil Works Administration in 1934.
The Cadwalader Branch was opened in 1927, and relocated to the old Strand Theater on North Hermitage Avenue in 1968. Like all of the branches, Cadwalader served as a vibrant community center for its neighborhood.
As with most areas of the country, Trenton experienced difficult economic times. This resulted in budget cuts that forced the closure of four branch facilities in 2010. 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 every day.
Many library patrons come for traditional purposes like borrowing a book or movie. The library circulates roughly 150,000 items annually. In addition, many patrons depend on the library for computer and internet usage, which have become necessities in their lives. The library offers public computers serving as a bridge across the digital divide for Trenton’s citizens to use for education, information and recreation. Free computer classes for seniors are available, as well as tutoring for all subject matter and for all ages. English as a Second Language courses are held regularly, plus book club discussions, lectures and many other events of educational and entertainment value. The Children’s Department has daily activities in their large room on the lower level, and a newly created Young Adult Lounge on the first floor contains work areas and computers for use. The renovated exhibition space on the mezzanine level showcases the work of local and New Jersey artists.
Since its opening in 1902, the library has been collecting and preserving the city’s history. Today, the Trentoniana Department has earned a reputation among researchers and genealogists as the premier collection devoted exclusively to the City of Trenton’s rich past. Among its holdings are business records, personal papers, letters, photographs, newspapers, scrapbooks, maps, ephemera, textiles, oral histories, artwork, and more. Trentoniana is the starting point for researchers looking into virtually any aspect of the city’s past. It collects, preserves, and makes available the primary research materials from all time periods, including present day.
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“Without the library, you have no civilization” – Ray Bradbury, author