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Reading Room
Reading Room in the Russwin Building

In 1853, a group of public-spirited men started the New Britain Institute. Its mission was to promote a series of lectures and establish a library and reading room. Rooms were opened in the Miller Block on Main Street. The Connecticut General Assembly incorporated the New Britain Institute in 1858. During the Civil War, the library room was closed due to a lack of funds. The library reopened in the Hart Block located on Main Street in 1869. Mark Twain gave the first lecture of the season. Other lecturers at Institute programs included Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Thomas Nast.

The Institute added about 400 German books to the library collection in 1871. This was an attempt to attract the city’s immigrants. This was the beginning of the foreign language collection. In 1886, the library rooms were relocated to the Russwin Building on West Main Street, now home to New Britain’s City Hall. In 1900, funds donated from the estate of Cornelius B. Erwin, enabled the construction of a new library building on the corner of High and West Main Street. The architect of the library building was William F. Brooks, a resident of New Britain and a partner in the Hartford architectural firm of Davis & Brooks. The dedication and opening of the new building were held on January 19, 1901. On May 1, 1901, a city appropriation of $4,000 made it possible to offer free service in all library departments. Prior to this time, use of the reading room and reference room was free but there was a $1.00 fee to borrow books.

In 1913, the East Street Branch Library opened. In 1931, The Hawley Memorial Children’s Library was built and opened to the public. Money for this building was received from the estate of Benjamin Hawley. The fifties were a busy time for the library. In 1950, the stack wing, previously open to staff only was opened to the public for the first time. Also at that time, the circulation desk was moved to opposite the front door where it stood until 1975. In 1951, recordings were made available for loan. 1953 was the Centennial Year for the New Britain Institute. The Thomas Jefferson Branch opened in 1956 and the Children’s Museum was opened in the basement of the Hawley Library. The Children’s Museum was renamed the Youth Museum in 1971.

Stairs to the stacks
Stairs to the stacks

The seventies was another eventful decade for the library. In 1974, the library became actively involved in the Connecticard Program, making it possible for people to borrow books directly from most other Connecticut public libraries. A fund drive began for expansion of the library and Youth Museum.  September 16, 1976 saw the dedication of the new Youth Museum and the renovated library. This renovation joined the Erwin building with the Hawley building.  In 1979, Sunday hours began at the library from October to May. Old library records indicate that the library was open on Sundays from 1894-1918.

The technology age began in earnest in the 1980’s. Terminals were installed in the Cataloging and Circulation Departments in 1980. Bibliographic entry of new books and entry of old records was the first step toward a computerized circulation system. The library became part of the Capitol Region Library Council’s CircCess.  In 1982, the library went on-line with the computerized circulation system “CircCess”.  In addition to advances with computer technology, 1983 brought the introduction of the first videocassette collection. Three years later, a compact disc (CD) collection was started at the library. In 1985, an anti-theft system was installed at the main library.

The nineties started with the library staff voting to unionize. In 1991, Sunday hours were suspended due to budget cuts. New Britain joined other area libraries in a fully integrated on-line automation system in 1993.  Young adult services were re-established in 1996. The Sheehan Computer Center also opened during that year thanks to a bequest by Richard W. Sheehan in memory of his parents, William J. and Mary O. Sheehan.

Disaster struck the East Street Branch of the library in 1997 when a flood destroyed much of their collection. Branch facilities were moved to the Chamberlain Elementary School.

Computer Center
Computer Center

Renovations were a big part of the 1990’s and continued into the early 21st century. In 1998, funds from the New Britain Institute and the Connecticut State Library allowed renovations to be made to the Erwin building. These included moving the Teen Room to the ground floor and the periodical and newspaper collection to the reading room.  Additional renovations included the addition of the Computer Center made possible with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This new Computer Center increased the number of computers with Internet access available to adults from three to thirteen. The new Computer Center opened in 2003.

In 1999, the library’s first web page was available on the Internet. Additionally, the Sage Computer Center opened in the Hawley Building (Children’s Department). In 2001, the New Britain Institute celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Erwin Building and the library being open to the public. The library also began to develop a Digital Video Disc (DVD) collection.

Renovations continued through 2005. The Reference Services desk and Reference Collection was moved to across from the Check-Out desk. The fiction collection was moved to the ground floor and the Cataloging Department or Technical Services as they are now known, was moved to brighter quarters on the ground floor.

How do I...
> Get a library card? > Search the catalog? > Reserve materials? > Join a computer class? > Reserve a museum pass?
> Review my account? > Make a suggestion? > Renew materials? > Reserve a computer? > Request materials?