Cap and Gown for an Innovator

Caroline M. Hewins

In 1882, Caroline M. Hewins had been a librarian in Hartford for only six years when, through a fledgling group called the American Library Association, she sent a questionnaire to twenty-five libraries around the country and asked: “What are you doing to encourage a love of reading in boys and girls?” A devoted reader since early childhood, Bostonian Hewins came to Hartford in 1876 to serve as the librarian of the Young Men’s Institute library, a precursor to what became the Hartford Public Library, and then housed at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Miss Hewins stayed with the library for the next fifty years, and oversaw its transformation from a lending library that charged fees into the free Hartford Public Library, complete with resources for children.

She came from a wealthy and cultured home where books had been her magic carpet, and she wanted them to be available to children at every economic level. The Institute Library had not welcomed children, but Miss Hewins quickly changed that, and gathered together books by Grimm, Andersen, Hawthorne, Thackeray and Dickens to furnish a corner for children. She used the power of the local press and professional library periodicals to encourage parents to bring their children to libraries, to read with them, and to choose quality books that would inspire the young imagination.

The same year that she sent out the questionnaire, she published a nationally available bibliography of children’s books she loved and thought valuable. During the time when a paid subscription to the library was $3 per year to borrow one book at a time, Hewins worked with local Hartford schools to encourage subscription cards for the children, at pennies per card.

By the time the library became a free service in 1892, Miss Hewins had already lowered the annual subscription fee to $1 and doubled the membership. Opinionated, iconoclastic and not a follower of rules established by others, she believed that children deserved better books than the formulaic and often violent Horatio Alger stories and weekly novels of the penny press. The Children’s Room she established had furniture suitable for different ages of children, pictures of flowers, lots of light and a resident dog the children helped name.

When not working at the library or writing for a national audience about the need for books and library settings appropriate to children, Miss Hewins traveled. On her many European trips, she wrote letters home to the children of Hartford, which the local newspapers published, and she shopped for books and dolls which she brought back to the library and shared with the children.

She collected books to be used in city classrooms, and made the library a place for book groups, theatrical skits, exhibits and parties. By building connections between local schools and the library, Caroline Hewins anticipated by more than a century the common practices of today. She promoted establishing library branches and believed that if the poor could not come to the books, the books should come to them.

The Hartford History Center at Hartford Public Library is home to her collection of more than 100 dolls, originals of some of the letters she wrote to Hartford children from Europe, correspondence and newspaper clippings, and the extraordinary collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European and American children’s books she built during her lifetime.

A wealthy woman who lived in a Hartford settlement house, a librarian who believed that libraries were for all people, and an innovator who made a place at the table for children and their dreams, in 1911 Caroline Hewins became the first woman to receive Trinity College’s honorary Master of Arts degree. She is considered the progenitor of libraries for children in America.

Anne Farrow, Hartford History Center