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Library History: 1930 - 1971

Emelyn Barrett Trimble
Silas Bronson Library Archives

Emelyn Barrett, born and raised in Waterbury, began working at the Silas Bronson during her senior year at Crosby High School in 1917 and, with the exception of one year spent studying Library Science at the Pratt Institute in 1924, remained at the Silas Bronson Library until her retirement in 1971. She became the library’s fifth director in 1929, replacing Lindsey Brown.

Barrett married designer Walden Trimble in 1949, but kept her marriage a secret from the public until her husband died in 1951. Societal convention and library rules at that time would have required her to quit her job as soon as she was married. The library’s Board of Agents knew about her marriage and agreed to allow her to keep her job so long as she pretended to still be unmarried. The Trimbles were wed in upstate New York and maintained separate residences to protect Emelyn’s job. Beginning with the death of her husband, she was officially known as Mrs. Trimble, rather than Miss Barrett.


Emelyn Barrett Trimble led the library through the Great Depression, World War II, and the construction of the current building during the 1960s. She opened three library branches, the East End, North End, and Bunker Hill branches, bringing the total number of library branches to six, in addition to the main library downtown. She championed the public’s right to read potentially controversial books, added music and film to the library’s loan collection, and transformed the library into a research center for students from grade school through college. At the time of her retirement, she felt that her greatest accomplishment was the construction of the modern downtown library building.


Branch Libraries

Waterville Branch Library, 1951
Seated at the desk is Librarian Minnie W. Mitchell
Silas Bronson Library Archives


Barrett’s top priority when she took over the leadership of the library was to improve and expand the branch libraries. In her 1930 annual report, Barrett noted that many people will use a library only if it is relatively close to them, stressing the importance of establishing more branch libraries in well-populated outlying areas of Waterbury.

The Waterville Branch Library was moved from its original location over a pharmacy to the annex of the Waterville Fire Station in 1930. The Brooklyn Branch and Rose Hill Branch both got a makeover during the 1930s and ‘40s.


North End Branch Library, 1951
Silas Bronson Library Archives


In 1937, near the end of the Great Depression, Barrett expressed hope of someday opening branches in the North End, Bunker Hill, Overlook, Hopeville, Fairlawn, and West Side Hill (Town Plot). Only sixteen percent of Waterbury’s residents had library cards; with more branches in the neighborhoods, Barrett anticipated that at least a third of the city would sign up to use the libraries.

The East End Branch opened in 1947 in a small storefront next to Hamilton Park. The North End Branch opened in 1951 on North Main Street near Division Street.

The Bunker Hill Branch, which opened in 1962, was the first branch library to have a building constructed specifically for that purpose.


School Deposits and Libraries

Library Day, Mill Street Playground, 1924
Silas Bronson Library Archives

In 1904, the library started a system of delivering books to Waterbury schools, which didn’t have their own libraries. A box of fifty books would be delivered each week, giving approximately 40 children each the chance to select a book to read. During the summer, books were distributed to children at city playgrounds in the same way.

The Silas Bronson Library began creating libraries in the schools in 1937, starting with Woodrow Wilson School, then Chase, Slocum, Walsh, Bishop, Welton, Bunker Hill, and Driggs Schools over the next several years. The new school libraries replaced the deposit boxes, setting up a room at each school with hundreds of books. Children’s librarians from the Silas Bronson staffed the school libraries one day per week.



Great Depression

Brooklyn Branch Library, late 1930s
Silas Bronson Library Archives

The library saw an increase in the number of cardholders and an increase in the number of books borrowed in 1930, attributing the increase to widespread unemployment and the resultant “enforced idleness of large numbers of people.”

The library’s annual report for 1930 noted that the “popularity of financial books is now a thing of the past, due no doubt to the stock market upheaval and general economic depression.” Financial magazines, however, remained popular.

Despite the increase in demand, the library’s budget for purchasing new books was diminished by losses on the stock market. Library books that would normally have been discarded for being worn out and dirty were kept because there wasn’t enough money to replace them.


In addition to a reduction in funds for buying books, the library’s municipal appropriation for salaries was cut by ten percent. Barrett commented in her annual report for 1931 that, although there was no possibility of extending library services, she hoped the library would meet the “challenge of the depression” in the coming year as well as it had in the year just ended.

Thanks to the federally-funded WPA jobs program, Barrett was able to afford to renovate the main library and branch libraries during the late 1930s, hiring her future husband, Walden Trimble, to oversee the interior design work.


World War II

By 1939, as news of the war in Europe grew, the library’s most popular books focused on conditions in Germany, then Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Finland. Hitler’s Mein Kampf was popular, but so were several novels about being escaping from the horrors of the concentration camps and the terrors of life in Nazi-occupied countries.

Circulation at the library held steady during the war, even though employment was booming with the factories running day and night to fill government contracts. The library more than doubled the number of books they purchased each year following the lean decade of the Great Depression. Barrett speculated in 1942 that the stress of the “present national emergency” increased the public’s need to escape into fiction.

In 1943, after describing the intensity and stress of life on the home front, Barrett commented that books “can be a stabilizing force in helping people to make the adjustments necessary for living in the shocking world of today and in the unknown world of tomorrow.”

Waterbury Republican, 22 September 1940
Silas Bronson Library WWII Archive


Immigrants began flocking to the library in 1940, in response to a new federal law requiring “enemy aliens” (immigrants from Germany, Italy, and Japan) to register with the government. The reference librarians at the Silas Bronson helped numerous immigrants complete their citizenship applications, helping them figure out which ship they arrived on and the date of their arrival. For those who had been in the U.S. for decades, this was a complicated task. One man who wanted help applying for citizenship arrived in the U.S. half a century earlier, when he was a child. His parents were no longer living, and he couldn’t remember the name of the ship or the port he sailed from.

Library Day at a Waterbury factory during WWII
Silas Bronson Library Archives

The branch libraries became a second home to many children, as both parents were working in the factories. Children using the branch libraries read an average of 26 books per year; at the newly remodeled Brooklyn branch, they averaged 31 books per year.

In 1943, the library started delivering books to factories every week, making it easier for the wartime workers to borrow books. Library staff visited during the day shift, while the factory’s Recreation Department handed out books to night shift crews at midnight.



Victory Book Drive


Victory Book Campaign poster, 1942
Silas Bronson Library WWII Archive


Starting in January 1942, Emelyn Barrett was co-chair of the Connecticut branch of the Victory Book campaign, which aimed to collect ten million books nationwide for USO houses, army dayrooms, ships, and naval bases. The library teamed up with the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts, students in 7th and 8th grade, and four trucking companies to collection 25,000 books for distribution to the military.

Posters for the campaign were placed in store windows throughout Waterbury and Wolcott, and storage rooms at the library were tested to see if they could hold the weight of the books that would be collected. The books were eventually stored in the basement of the library.


Victory Book Drive sign on the Grand Street
side of the library, January 1942
Silas Bronson Library WWII Archive


To help promote the campaign, the library installed a four-foot-tall sign on two sides of the building. The sign was created by Murrary McAnelly, a sign painter, with assistance from library employees Jane Ranando, Guldane Kershian, and Grace George.

Library employees and Red Cross volunteers (a total of nearly 800 people) drove through local neighborhoods, going door to door collecting books on January 23, 1942. Books were also delivered by the public directly to the library.




Boy Scouts helping with book donations, 1942
Silas Bronson Library WWII Archive



Boy Scout Troop 19, under Scoutmaster Robert Sturges, unloaded and stacked the books as they arrived at the library on January 23.

Within one week’s time, close to 27,000 books were collected by the library. Damaged books were mended by library staff to make them usable, but most of the books donated were in very good or new condition.

Victory Book Campaign Poster, 1943
Silas Bronson Library WWII Archive


A second Victory Book Campaign was launched in February 1943. Books were collected at the Victory House on the Green, at neighborhood firehouses, and at local businesses, as well as at the library. By May 1943, the library had collected 2,200 books for the campaign.

In a letter to John M. Connor at the Victory Book Campaign Headquarters in NYC, Emelyn Barrett made a special request for a company of Waterbury men stationed in New Guinea, who had almost nothing to read. Barrett asked for permission to send the “pocket edition” books collected in Waterbury to that company. Barrett did not receive permission to send any books directly to Waterbury’s servicemen overseas, but she was assured that a large shipment of books would be sent to New Guinea shortly.



Pop Culture

During the late 1930s, the library started a WPA music appreciation program using a private record collection and a rented Capehart record player. The program was deemed “one of the most successful experiments in adult education ever conducted in Waterbury.” As a result, the library began planning to add recorded music to its collections in 1941. Barrett’s annual report proposed purchasing a Carnegie music set, which would include an electric phonograph, 600 record albums, and a card index of the collection.

The library’s first music collection, featuring 1400 records donated by Frederick S. Chase and a Magnavox radio-phonograph donated by the Carnegie Corporation, was established in 1943. The records could be borrowed for home use, or played at the library on the radio-phonograph. The library’s music collection at this point was primarily classical music.


Waterbury Republican, 29 December 1970
Silas Bronson Library Archive

During the 1950s, television emerged as a potential threat to the popularity of libraries. In an article in the Naugatuck Daily News on September 19, 1951, Ivy Lovering, head of the Silas Bronson Library’s children’s department, said that several children had said they were quitting the library because they had a television at home now – but they all returned to the library after a few months.

Film became one of the library’s most popular collection areas in 1971, with more than 5,700 films shown at the library that year, drawing in over 240,000 people to the library. The library’s 8mm and 16mm film collection was borrowed frequently, primarily by schools, church and community groups, and convalescent homes.  


Teens at the Library

During the 1940s, high school students began using the library with increasing frequency to work on theme papers and debate topics. By 1942, the library was considering the creation of a room just for high school students, as the reference room was often “completely taken over by students,” making it difficult for adults to concentrate “in such an atmosphere of unrest.”

The teens of the 1960s, in Waterbury and elsewhere, flocked to the libraries. Waterbury’s main library downtown was popular with teenagers who would stop by after school in such “unprecedented numbers” they were crowding out the adults. In 1964, Barrett noted that the teens were using all areas of the building intended for adults, because the space set aside for them wasn’t nearly large enough.


The teen reading area in 1964
Silas Bronson Library Archives

A new Young Adult Department was created to serve the large teen demographic. In the department’s annual report for 1968, the library declared that “in spite of all the criticism directed toward teen-agers today, they are a more mature, a more self-sufficient and a more serious group of library users than ever before.” Popular nonfiction topics for teens that year included civil disobedience, Civil Rights, and Vietnam.

The annual report of 1969 expressed great sympathy for teenagers, who were dealing with major issues such as “drugs, war, the draft, student unrest and civil rights.” By 1970, the library was describing teens as “youth in turmoil” in “a world of social chaos.”


Integration and Civil Rights

The library hired its first African American librarian, Minnie Williams Mitchell, around 1950. Mitchell previously worked as a librarian at Lincoln School for Nurses in the Bronx. She moved to Waterbury after marrying Walter Mitchell in 1947, commuting to her job in the Bronx until she was hired by the Silas Bronson Library.

The North End Branch Library opened in 1951, bringing library services to a predominantly African American neighborhood.


Thomas Mallory viewing a display of
African American and Civil Rights
books at the library
Waterbury American, 26 February 1965
Silas Bronson Library Archives

The library found that the Civil Rights movement led to an increase in requests from the public for books on the subject. In 1965, the library collaborated with Thomas Mallory and Kellogg Lodge No. 5 to assemble and promote a collection of books celebrating African American achievement and exploring civil rights.

In 1967, the library hosted the city's "Negro History Week" held during February with a two-week exhibit of African American history and a ceremony which included Mayor Frederick Palomba, State Treasurer Gerald Lamb, Thomas Mallory, Isaiah Holley, and Worshipful Master Henry Hardy of the Kellogg Lodge.


Waterbury American, 15 February 1967
Silas Bronson Library Archives

In 1968, after the Waterbury school curriculum was updated to include African American history, the library suddenly had a increase of requests for biographies of African Americans.

In 1969, some of the most popular items at the library included an interim report on the Waterbury Public Hearings of the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities and a UConn report investigating racial imbalance in the Waterbury public schools. 


Main Library Building

A newly renovated reading lobby, 1953
Silas Bronson Library Archives

Constructed in 1894, the main library building on Grand Street aged poorly and was in need of frequent repairs and upgrades.

The first improvements made by Emelyn Barrett to the main building downtown included the installation of a power-operated elevator in 1930, replacing the old hand-cranked elevator from the 1890s. Felt and linoleum flooring was installed in the children’s room in 1930 to “deaden the sound of restless milling feet” which was disturbing adult patrons on the floor below.

Sketch, 1937

Barrett began campaigning for a new building in 1937, stressing that an 1890s building simply wasn’t able to meet modern requirements for libraries. She included a sketch comparing the size of the library to City Hall and the Chase Building to emphasize the relative smallness of the library.

By the late 1950s, Barrett (now Mrs. Trimble) was actively raising the funds to construct a new library building. Although the library had been renovated, it still wasn’t large enough to meet the needs of the public. The 1890s building was to be torn down and replaced by a larger, modern building.


The library in 1964, when the old building
was still standing (behind Ben Franklin)
Silas Bronson Library Archives


Local architect Joseph Stein, who designed the Bunker Hill Branch Library, was selected to oversee the new building’s design and construction. The new library was constructed in two phases, replacing the old building while still allowing a portion of it to be used. Stein won an Award of Merit for Public Library Design for his work on the Silas Bronson Library from The American Institute of Architects in 1964.

The first wing of the library to be completed, which included the Main Reading Room and the front lobby, opened in October 1963. Construction of the two-story East Wing began in 1966 and was completed in 1968.


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