Tuesday, January 19, 2016

History of Russell Library, Part I

Photo by Jason Neely.
Russell Library is in transition.  Russell Library Director Arthur S. Meyers retires on February 19, and Matthew Poland steps into the role on February 22.  It is a time to look forward, but also to look back. With this post we begin a short history of Russell Library and its first ten Directors.



Frances Russell established Russell Library in 1876 in memory of her husband Samuel, Middletown native and founder of Russell & Company, the largest and most important trading house with China in the last half of the nineteenth century. In 1834, the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity was built on the corner of Broad and Court Streets in the Roman Gothic style, but in the early 1870s the congregation moved to its present location on Main Street.  Mrs. Russell purchased and remodeled the Broad Street church building as a public library.  The Russell Library Company was incorporated by a special act of the Legislature in 1875, "as a public library and a depository for such pictures and other works of art as might from time to time be given to the company ..."  William Isaac Fletcher, Librarian of the Watkinson Library in Hartford,selected the books in the initial collection, mostly works of history, biography and travel.


George F. Winchester, 1876-1884

Russell Library opened on April 5, 1876 with a free public reading room, 3,300 books, and a hall that seated 400-500 people. It was open to everyone over the age of 14, and the hours were Monday through Saturday from 3-6pm and 7-9pm. The Library struggled financially in its early years, and Mrs. Russell regularly contributed money to its operations.  However, the financial constraints led in part to Winchester's resignation in 1884.


Willis K. Stetson, 1884-1887

Willis K. Stetson was a graduate of Wesleyan University, and became Russell Library Director just after receiving his master's degree in 1884.  Stetson's tenure as Director was short-lived--in 1887 he accepted a position at New Haven Public Library where he remained until 1927. But the collection grew to 8,000 books under his leadership, and in 1886 the first branch library opened at Staddle Hill.

--End of Part I-- 

Click here for Part II

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