Caroline Maria Hewins was a revolutionary librarian and advocate who helped establish the Hartford Public Library and significantly enlarge the very idea of what a public library could be in America. She came to Hartford at age 29 in 1875 to serve as librarian at the Young Men's Institute of Hartford, worked through its merger with Hartford Library Association four years later, then oversaw the institution's transition to a free public library serving all the city's citizens in 1893. She served as librarian until her passing in 1926, helping embody her belief that everyone should have access to libraries, books, and the gateway to learning and opportunity which they represent.
Central to her outsized reputation is Hewins’ advocacy for opening the doors of libraries to children. The eldest of eight children born to a wealthy Boston family, Hewins spent years reading to her own younger siblings. After studying at Boston’s Normal School (long ago merged with UMass-Boston), she served as a teacher in her early career before moving on to Hartford and her long tenure at what would become Hartford Public Library. In 1904, she opened a room dedicated specifically to children and children’s literature, one of the first of its kind which became a model for other public libraries across the nation, including the venerable New York Public Library.
Working beyond the library’s walls, Hewins was the founder and executive secretary of the Connecticut Public Library Committee and encouraged cooperation between schools and libraries for the benefit of children.
It is only appropriate that Louise Blalock, who served as Hartford Public Library’s Chief Librarian from 1994 until 2008, be honored with this inaugural award. She exemplified the ideals of a truly public library, about which 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.
The Caroline M. Hewins Award recognizes an individual, woman and/or man, who embraces the city and its people, someone who breaks the mold and provides service of a revolutionary kind – stretching 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.
Much of the information in this article was gleaned from a wonderful piece on Caroline M. Hewins by Susan Aller for ConnecticutHistory.org, which goes into much more detail about her life, career, and the huge impact she continues to have in the world nearly a century after her death. Read more about her at http://connecticuthistory.org/the-public-library-movement-caroline-hewins-makes-room-for-young-readers/