The extraordinary civic example and life of Caroline M. Hewins, the revolutionary librarian who helped create Hartford Public Library and who significantly enlarged the very idea of the public library in America, deserves a wider audience. Caroline Maria Hewins believed that everyone should have a library card and access to books. The book itself now has many more forms than during Miss Hewins’ day, but what it represents —learning and opportunity — has never been more important.
Hartford Public Library will be presenting the first Caroline M. Hewins medal to Louise Blalock, who ran HPL from 1994 through 2008, at its new event, Beyond Words, on December 1.
She and Caroline Hewins both believed in libraries for children and for free public access to the library and all its resources. Ms. Blalock established a national template for library outreach, diversity, service and quality. She was named National Librarian of the Year in 2001 by the Library Journal. Hartford Public Library was honored in 2002 with the National Award for Museum and Library Service by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
The Caroline M. Hewins Medal recognizes an individual who embraces the City of Hartford and its people, who breaks the mold and provides service of a revolutionary kind, who stretches the boundaries of a social or cultural institution with a humanistic approach to public service, and who shows strong guardianship of and advocacy for the basic right of equal access to information and opportunity.
At the center of Blalock's 14-year tenure was the dramatic revitalization of the Downtown Library, which increased the size of the building located at 500 Main St. by 45,000 square feet. The project added expanded space for reading rooms, classrooms, study areas, and computers for the public to use and access the internet. The $42 million project also included work to revitalize the library's neighborhood branches.
"There had been no improvement to our facilities in over 40 years," she said at the time. "We now have a landmark building on Main Street for the people of Hartford. You cannot have a great city without a great library."
Blalock's tenure also saw the launch or expansion of several community-based initiatives, including offering classes for non-English speaking residents, assistance with the U.S. naturalization process, and assistance with job searching and resume preparation. These programs have become a cornerstone of the Hartford Public Library and its value to the community, and continue to this day.
"[Residents] can come here to learn English or even become citizens, but they can do more," she said. "They can go to the computer and finish up a resume or apply for jobs or apply for college loans. It's a resource in the community that other places cannot match."
Her retirement in 2008 saw a library supporting the needs of its community and ready to adapt to the needs of the community in the future. Louise exemplified the ideals of a truly public library, ideals that Caroline Hewins eloquently articulated: Libraries need to be free; they need to be welcoming; they need to be nimble in answering the needs of their patrons; and they need to be future-oriented, even as they protect the past.