Powerhouse of a Library

The Watkinson celebrates 150 years of service
By Rick Ring

David Watkinson, an English-born Hartford merchant and a founding trustee of Trinity College
David Watkinson, an English-born Hartford merchant and a founding trustee of Trinity College

It was 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday, August 28, 1866, in downtown Hartford. The newly constructed Watkinson Library, in a purpose-built wing of the Wadsworth Atheneum, was opened for inspection to members of the city government and invited guests. Its elegant rooms and alcoves of oak were designed for 25,000 volumes and so far held 12,000, which had been purchased over the previous three years on a rigorous plan by J. Hammond Trumbull from booksellers in London, Paris, Leipzig, New York City, and Boston. That evening, at the nearby Allyn House — the finest hotel in Hartford at the time — a gala celebrating the opening was held for 200 ladies and gentlemen, including the mayor and the governor.

All of this was made possible by the 11th codicil of the will of David Watkinson, which in 1857 directed $100,000 in trust to the City of Hartford to found a “Library of Reference.” The equivalent value of that gift today would be about $30 million.

In those early years, Trumbull bought books, helped a steady stream of patrons, and devised his own classification system (this was a decade before Melvil Dewey helped to found the American Library Association and published his “decimal system”), laboriously writing information for each book on small catalog cards and filing them alphabetically by author and subject. Within four years, the shelves were full, thanks to purchases and the enthusiastic generosity of donors. The need for more shelving became a refrain in the annual reports that continues to the present day.

The Hartford Courant regularly announced new books donated or purchased and reported on events and how the library was being used. In 1893, some expansion was made possible after years of effort, and 10 years later, the shelves were full again. The Watkinson nevertheless continued to flourish under the management of Trumbull, who retired in 1897, and his successor, Frank Butler Gay, who collaborated well with other libraries in the city until he retired in 1934.

Watkinson stacks are overflowing in the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1950.
Watkinson stacks are overflowing in the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1950.

By the late 1940s, the Watkinson Library was bursting at the seams with 130,000 volumes and was running out of money. As it happened, at that time the Trinity College Library was also bursting at the seams, crammed into Williams Memorial. The boards of both institutions began talking, and after raising $300,000 from Paul Mellon and his Old Dominion Foundation (among others) and clearing things with the state legislature and the courts, the merging of the two libraries created a new, remarkably rich academic library for the College.

The transfer happened in 1952; according to the Trinity College Bulletin of March 1952, “The moving of the Trinity collection of 225,000 volumes will take approximately four weeks. The present book stacks will then be dismantled and re-erected on the top floor of the new building to shelve the 130,000 Watkinson books … [which] must be moved from upstairs in the Wadsworth Atheneum in downtown Hartford, through one of the busiest districts of the city, to the College campus.”

Six years later, on December 1, 1958, in a speech during the Watkinson’s centennial celebration, Trinity President Albert Charles Jacobs H’68 proclaimed that “we are extremely fortunate in having this storehouse — perhaps the better word is powerhouse — on our campus.” Another speaker, Thomas R. Adams, librarian of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, predicted that this merger “will play an important part in the future of this College and in the never-ending search for a better understanding of the work and achievements of the most complex of animals — the human being.”

From the moment the Watkinson arrived at Trinity, it has acted as a lodestone for gifts of important collections and single works of utmost rarity and has provided the raw materials for advanced research and an impressive program of more than 400 exhibitions for more than 60 years. Now with more than 200,000 volumes ranging in date from the 11th century to the present, more than 10,000 sound recordings, 20,000 pieces of sheet music, and thousands of separately issued maps, prints, posters, and other ephemera, not to mention the 4,000 cubic feet of manuscript material that includes the College Archives, the Watkinson is indeed a powerhouse. Each year, more than 100 class sessions meet in the Watkinson to view more than 3,000 items from the collections that relate to their classes, and nearly 2,000 readers — half of whom are Trinity students — per year come in for their own research.

Left to right: Indian Bible from 1865; accession records from 1883; Dutch atlas from 1579
Left to right: Indian Bible from 1865; accession records from 1883; Dutch atlas from 1579

Back on December 16, 1878, Trumbull was quoted in The Hartford Courant about the Watkinson: “To it years will bring no decay. Interested guardians will take care that it does not become hidden in the dust of ages. Each year time will add something to, not take aught from, its value. ‘More lasting than brass,’ it will bear witness to future generations, to the generous public spirit of its founder.”

Rick Ring is head curator of the Watkinson Library.


The Watkinson Creative Fellowship Program was established in the spring of 2011 to create support for undergraduate students to explore the Watkinson’s collections and to engage with the material to produce something new. Since the first cohort of students in the spring of 2012, 27 Creative Fellows have been named. Below are just a few of their stories:

CHRISTINA CLAXTON ’16 double majored in public policy and law and philosophy and was a Creative Fellow in the fall of 2013. She worked with the library’s 17-volume first edition of Denis Diderot’s famous Encyclopédie (1751–65), a cornerstone of the Enlightenment, and created a website “to explore this work and to give my own perspective on an incredible composition from a very important time in history.”
Christina Claxton ’16 website: http://xtinaencyclopediephilologie.blogspot.com/

ALIX DE GRAMONT ’15 was a religion major and a Creative Fellow in the spring of 2014. She studied book-binding structures in the Watkinson and apprenticed with book artist Daniel Kelm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to produce a series of structures on her own; she donated her pieces to the Watkinson. She now helps run the art gallery RARE for Glenn Horowitz Bookseller in New York City.
Alix de Gramont ’15 bookseller website: http://www.glennhorowitz.com/rare

MAIA MADISON ’15 was a history major and a Creative Fellow in the fall of 2013. After discovering a passion for the history of chocolate in Assistant Professor of History and American Studies Tom Wickman’s course “Food and Power in the Americas,” Madison imagined herself as a 17th century businessman in New Spain, seeking funds for a chocolate factory from the crown, and produced two hand-drawn maps and a 14-page pamphlet tracing the known chocolate factories in 1700 and the products and recipes one would have found in use at the time.

FRANCIS RUSSO ’13 double majored in music and history and was a Creative Fellow in the spring of 2012. He worked with a newly acquired French manuscript book of popular songs (ca. 1830), scored it in modern notation, got his friends to sing some of the songs, and composed and performed original piano pieces that were inspired by the illustrations and that he produced on a CD.
Francis Russo ’13 CD: http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/fellows/3/

JULIA FALKOWSKI ’13 double majored in American studies and English and was a Creative Fellow in the fall of 2012. She worked with historic cookbooks in the Watkinson, making dishes from recipes dating between 1790 and 1970, bringing in samples for the staff to taste, and writing about it in a blog.
Julia Falkowski ’13 blog: http://watkinsoncookbook.blogspot.com