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Library History: 1901 - 1929

Helen Sperry

Helen Sperry was the first woman to run the Silas Bronson Library, replacing Homer Bassett in 1901.

The sister of industrialist Mark L. Sperry, she worked as an assistant librarian at the Silas Bronson from 1883 until 1892, when she left to study at the New York State Library School, founded and run by Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey Decimal Classification System.

After graduation, Sperry began working at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, serving as the head of the library for about six years before returning to Waterbury to run the Silas Bronson Library. Sperry also served as president of the Connecticut Library Association from 1915 to 1916.


Reading Room, view looking northwest, c. 1906

Sperry began implementing changes to the library as soon as she started leading it. The changes she introduced included allowing patrons to renew books they had out; allowing patrons to borrow two volumes of a novel at the same time; allowing patrons to reserve books; and allowing patrons to browse the bookshelves instead of requesting specific books to be brought to them by library staff. Today, by contrast, renewals and holds are commonplace, unlimited numbers of novels can be borrowed at one time, and most of the shelves are open to the public whenever the library is open.

Reading Room, view looking southeast, c. 1906

More new features of the library added during Sperry’s first year running the library were the weekly story hour, held every Saturday morning for an average of 100 children at a time; and extended hours for the library’s small art gallery and museum.

The changes introduced by Sperry were welcomed by the public, who had long asked for many of them to be instituted. An anonymous letter published in the Waterbury American praised the changes as “the modern idea” of public access to public resources and also praised the library’s new spirit of respect for and courtesy to the public.

Children's Room, c. 1909 

A collaboration with the city schools starting in 1903 brought books from the library to the schools, making it easier for children to borrow books, with classroom teachers were responsible for the return of the books. The change in focus at the library led to a rapid increase in its use—for example, the number of times people asked the librarians for research assistance grew from only a few a year to more than 12,000 in 1921.

The City of Waterbury began supporting the library’s operations in 1904. At first, the City appropriation was small, earmarked for new books to help with the library’s public school program. The success of the program led to an increase in City funding to support additional outreach programs at the library, including the addition of branch libraries in some of the more remote neighborhoods. The main branch on Grand Street was open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sundays from October through April, 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Branch Libraries

The Waterville Branch Library opened on March 26, 1907 in a room above the Carney Drug Store on Thomaston Avenue. Use of the branch was restricted to adults, except during the summer, when children were allowed to borrow books. During the school year, children in Waterville were expected to use the Silas Bronson’s deposit library at Sprague School. At the request of Waterville residents, books in Swedish were added in 1914.

Brooklyn Branch Library, 1911

The Brooklyn Branch Library opened in the former Protector Fire Engine House on Bank Street on October 23, 1909. According to the library’s 1910 annual report, “Great excitement prevailed on the day of opening among the children of the neighborhood, and when they were allowed to enter the library, their delight knew no bounds.” The branch library was run by Sadie Kennedy, with boys from neighboring schools assisting her. Following requests from the Brooklyn neighborhood residents, the branch added books in Lithuanian and Italian to its collection.

A delivery station was opened at the Bunker Hill School on February 6, 1913. A library assistant visited once a week to take orders and deliver books to patrons. Other delivery stations were started at the Southmayd Home and at fire stations in half a dozen neighborhoods.

The Rose Hill Branch Library, located in the former Rose Hill Fire Engine House on Baldwin Street, opened on October 3, 1913. Sarah Church ran the Children’s Room at the branch, while Mary Fagan ran the adult department. Within the first five hours of operation, 349 books were checked out to children.

In her 1919 report to the library’s Board, Helen Sperry noted that the library branches offered “a pleasant refuge from the streets for the children in the poorer districts of the city,” giving them a place to read and assistance in research for school assignments.


Art Donations

Ben Franklin statue, Silas Bronson Library, 1940s
Ben Franklin statue in front of the library during the 1940s

The iconic statue of Benjamin Franklin was unveiled on June 4, 1921. Funding for the artwork was left to the City of Waterbury by Elisha Leavenworth in 1911. Paul Wayland Bartlett was commissioned in 1913 to create the sculpture; a highly regarded sculptor with a studio in Paris, Bartlett was also the son of Waterbury artist Truman H. Bartlett. The project was delayed by World War I – Bartlett had to flee Paris in 1914, retreating to Baltimore, Maryland, where he had to start all over on his work.

When the sculpture of Franklin was completed, instead of being shipped directly to the library, it went on a patriotic grand tour following a route taken by Benjamin Franklin in his youth. The statue was placed on a flatbed truck and was escorted by a group of Boy Scouts. At each major city on the route, parades and ceremonies were held, and the statue was adorned with floral wreaths.



The bronze bust of Dante, which today stands in the library’s front lobby, was presented to the library by members of Waterbury’s Italian American community at a ceremony held on January 22, 1922.

The sculpture was created by Torrington artist Paolo S. Abbate and was acquired for the library by Rev. Pasquale Codella, pastor of Waterbury's Italian Congregational Church.



Library Park

The library with its porte-cochere;
photo from the 1906 Annual Report

The library with its new porch;
photo from the 1925 Annual Report

In 1920, the Olmsted Brothers landscaping firm was hired to beautify Library Park, with Cass Gilbert, architect of the City Hall building, overseeing the plans. The project was an extension of the work Gilbert had already done on Grand Street.

Funding for the project was provided by the Chase family, who owned one of the big three manufacturing companies in Waterbury. Edith Chase, whose father had initiated the development of Grand Street as a magnificent civic center, took the lead on working with Gilbert on the Library Park project, while Waterbury’s mayor had the final say in any decisions. Renovations to Library Park were completed in 1922.

As part of the overall redesign, the porte-cochere at the east end of the library was removed, leaving the Greek Revival style porch facing City Hall.


Community Outreach

The library’s museum collections were loaned to the Mattatuck Historical Society in 1913 for a new museum established in the former Kendrick house on the Green.

Under Sperry’s leadership, the library placed an emphasis on serving the City’s immigrant population. Foreign language books were selected for the City’s immigrant populations: French, German, Italian, Swedish, Yiddish, and Bohemian books were all in circulation during the early 1900s. Sperry observed in at least one annual report that the children of immigrants made up about a third of the visits to the children’s programs.

Waterbury Republican,
March 22, 1918

During World War I, the library started a knitting class which made sweaters, socks, and other items for distribution by the Red Cross. More than 59 people were taught how to knit, including an 11-year-old boy who became the fastest knitter of sweaters in his neighborhood. A fundraising campaign in 1917 brought in nearly $8,000 for a national campaign to create camp libraries for soldiers. The following year, a book drive held by the library, the Rotary Club, and the Boy Scouts brought in more than 25,000 books to be donated to soldiers overseas.

Children visiting the library branches made scrapbooks of short stories, jokes, and cheerful pictures to send to wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C.

During the influenza epidemic of 1918, the library was closed for three weeks in October, as were most businesses in Waterbury. While the library was closed to the public, the janitors did a deep clean of the building, while other staff members got caught up on their backlog of work. Those who had sick friends or relatives spent their time taking care of them. The librarians also assisted the Red Cross with emergency sewing, while the Children's Librarian helped take care of orphans temporarily houses at the Girls’ Club.

Newspaper clipping, Silas Bronson Library scrapbooks, June 1922

The library’s community outreach programs grew during the 1920s. The library selected and delivered reading material to convalescing patients at Waterbury Hospital. Children’s books were made available at seven city playgrounds during the summer months, and the library organized daily story hours at the playgrounds. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts helped distribute brochures of recommended reading for children, and the library created displays connecting books to popular movies.


By 1922, the library’s success was outstripping its resources. The building, only 30 years old, was no longer large enough to accommodate the growing number of books, programs, and staff. The library’s funding was also lacking—between the money received from the City and the income generated by the Bronson Fund endowment, the library’s budget was only half of the national recommended amount for a city of Waterbury’s size.

When Helen Sperry retired in 1924, there were 121,589 books in the library’s collection. Every summer, the library loaned out more than 11,000 books to children at city playgrounds. During the school year, the library loaned out 100,000 books to children through the public schools. Another 215,000 books circulated at the main library. There were three branch libraries: Waterville, Brooklyn, and Rose Hill.

After her retirement, Sperry was praised for her “outstanding service and contribution to the city’s cultural, educational and moral growth” through her work at the library.


Lindsey Brown at New Haven, 1930s


Lindsey Brown led the Silas Bronson Library from 1925 to 1929. A Harvard graduate, Brown had been an Assistant Librarian at the New Haven Public Library before coming to Waterbury.

Shortly after joining the Silas Bronson Library, Brown launched a series of improvements to the main building, making alterations and repairs funded primarily by private donations. The project included the creation of an enlarged children’s room on the second floor, with new furniture and shelving; the installation of a metal ceiling on the first floor to cover up water damage (roof leaks were an ongoing problem); and an update to the plumbing and electrical systems. Brown advocated for the installation of an electricity-powered dumbwaiter (there was a manually-operated elevator), and advised against the creation of public restrooms.

“The central library contains no public lavatories. Though a small number of our readers, especially children, suffer inconvenience from this lack, it is the experience of most librarians that a public lavatory receives a very large use from persons who make no other use of the library.”
                    ~ Lindsey Brown, Annual Report, 1927

Brown advocated to increase municipal funding for the library, pointing out that the library was receiving about half of the recommended per capita appropriation recommended by the American Library Association. He also worked on increasing public awareness of the library and its funding issues, speaking at various community forums and pushing for coverage in the local newspapers.

In his annual report for 1928, Brown noted that “Radio, motion pictures, automobiles, and other competing attractions of recent years do not appear to have affected adversely the reading of library books.”

Brown left the Silas Bronson to return to the New Haven public library as its Head Librarian. Before leaving Waterbury, Brown conducted a study of the city’s library branches and proposed opening a new branch in the north end, where he felt it was most needed and where residents had petitioned for a branch to be added, but it would be nearly 25 years before the North End Branch Library finally opened.


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