The Trenton Free Public Library
Backstory and Context
The Trenton Free Public Library was founded in 1750 as the Trenton Library Company by Dr. Thomas Cadwalader. Dr. Cadwalader (as the first chief Burgess of Trenton) gave 50 pounds for the procurement of this library company. The books circulated through multiple rented rooms as well as the homes of its patrons, but was decimated during the 1776 British occupation of the city. The first piece of evidence for the library reappearing is through a shareholder-funded newspaper notice in 1781, which asks previous and current members to return books that belonged to the library. In fact, four books from the original Trenton Library Company are currently held in the Trentoniana department, also known as the special collections room. From 1797 to 1804, the library almost tripled its collection from 240 to 700 volumes. As a subscription service, members of the library bought shares of stock and paid an annual fee to prolong the organization. To make the volumes accessible to customers, the company probably rented a room in a building and opened itself to visitors for a couple hours every week.
The earliest known possible location of the library was at William Yard's house in March of 1759, while Stacy Potts was listed as one of the first librarians in 1765. By 1781, the annual meeting of the Trenton Library Company was held at the home of Renssaler Williams, Esq., and the reorganization meeting at Drake's Tavern 16 years later. At the beginning of the 19th century, stockholders of the library petitioned for permission to erect a building on the same property as the governor's mansion on West State Street. This structure would serve as a library room, without exceeding a size of 20 by 30 feet. Even though permission to build the library was granted, there is no evidence that the building was ever created. Therefore, the library probably continued in a rented room.
After a short period of decline in the 1830's, the Trenton Library Company eventually transferred its collection on May 20th, 1855 to the Trenton Library Association. The Association (started in 1852), originally located at the corner of Temperance Hall moved to the second floor of a building on Greene (now Broad Street). A fire on December 26th, 1854 on the first floor of the building would result in a considerable loss for the Library Association. The organization was dissolved in the 1860's, and its contents were transferred to the Young Men's Christian Association in Trenton, which (at the time) had public reading rooms on 20-22 East State Street. By 1879, the Y.M.C.A had these volumes transferred to the Women's Christian temperance Union within the city.
In 1883, the W.C.T.U created the Union Library Company which functioned as an affordable subscription model for many working-class families in the area. The organization raised enough money that by 1885, it was able to create a brownstone on East State Street to hold their collection. Seeing the decline of the Union Library Company at the start of the 20th century, Mayor Frank O. Briggs created a ballot regarding the creation of a public, free, tax-supported but autonomous library for the citizens of Trenton. The referendum passed 4,482 to 1,052 votes, and therefore the Free Public Library of the City of Trenton was born. A board of trustees was elected with Ferdinand W. Roebling as the first president. Using a portion from the city budget, the trustees purchased the Union Library Company's collection, leased its building, hired Sarah Nelson as cataloger and temporary librarian, and assistants Alice M. Rice and Louis K. Hope. Adam J. Strohm was hired on September 1st, 1901 as the first permanent chief librarian.
The Free Public Library continued to grow, as the board purchased a lot on Academy Street for $20,000 dollars, which had been the site of the Trenton Academy (opened in 1782). The building of a permanent library was estimated to cost around $80,000 with the furnishing and equipment adding an addition $15,000 to the budget. Spencer Roberts from Philadelphia, was the architect of the building. The building was dedicated on June 9th, 1902 and the director of the Newark Public Library and Museum, John Cotton Dana, was a featured speaker at the event. By the end of the library's first year, the organization had 9,477 library card holders and a collection of 25,562 books. With the influx of items and patrons, the library quickly realized a need for more space.
John L. Cadwalader, great-grandson of Dr. Thomas Cadwalader, offered to build a large addition to the library and make other alterations to the original structure in 1913. The architect elected for this project was New Yorker Edward L. Tilton of New York. The overall additions were dedicated on April 5th, 1916, and ended up costing around $45,000. The next addition to the library wouldn't occur for another 60 years, until Trenton architects Horowitz & Wirth were assigned with creating a large Centennial Wing on the land adjacent to the original building where the Joseph Wood School stood.
As the population of Trenton grew, so did the number of libraries within the city. Branches that were added to the Trenton Library System were... the Briggs Branch (Est. 1910), the Skelton Branch (Est. 1926), the East Trenton Branch (Est. 1926), and the Cadwalader Branch (Est. 1927). Unfortunately, like most other rust belt cities, Trenton's economic decline began in the 1960's and 1970's which effected its public services. This economic downturn resulted in the closure of all four branch extensions in 2010. Regardless of these closings, the Trenton Free Public Library continues to provide outstanding library services to the citizens of Trenton by striving to improve and innovate its resources every day.
Since the opening of the library in 1902, Trentoniana has been committed to both collecting and preserving the city's rich history. In the 21st century, the Trentoniana Department continues to earn a reputation as the premier collection devoted to the city of Trenton's past. Featured in the collection are business records, personal papers, letters, photographs, newspapers, scrapbooks, maps, ephemera, textiles, oral histories, artwork, and more. Trentoniana serves as a starting point for researchers, students, and patrons who are looking into virtually any aspect of the city's past.