Caroline Maria Hewins

Caroline Maria Hewins
"We Yankees, in our intense longing for usefulness, teach many facts which may well be left until manhood and womanhood, and appeal too little to the sense of beauty which, if not found in childhood, is forever lost."
- Caroline Maria Hewins, 1875

Induction Category:
Education & Preservation

Born: 1846

Died: 1926

Inducted: 1995

Town: Hartford

Caroline Maria Hewins, Hartford’s “First Lady of the Library,” was born in Roxbury, Mass., and was the oldest of nine children. She was educated at home and at private schools before attending the Normal School of Boston. After graduation, she was hired to do Civil War research for the Boston Athenaeum before coming to Hartford in 1875 to run the Young Men’s Institute Library. At the time, the institute was a subscription-only library housed in the Wadsworth Atheneum and had about 600 members. Under her 50-year leadership, the library moved from private to public, and its children’s programming became a model for libraries around the country.

Upon her arrival in Hartford, Hewins was dismayed to discover a dearth of children’s materials in the library and spent considerable time and resources to develop a children’s collection. She partnered with local schools so that children would have better access to library materials. In 1882, she published Books for the Young, the first bibliography intended for children, and in 1888 she wrote a history of children’s literature for the Atlantic Monthly. Hewins made herself available to local parents and teachers, serving them tea once a week when they came to consult with her, and founded the Education Club, which later became the Parent-Teacher Association. She also devised nature outings and story times for children, causing them to flock to her library.

Hewins also shepherded the library through a number of important changes. In 1878, the Young Men’s Institute was merged with the Hartford Library Association and, ten years later, a generous grant enabled the library to undertake a large expansion project. In 1892, Hewins oversaw the library’s change from a private, subscription service to a free public library, and the Hartford Public Library was born. Suddenly the library went from its 600 paying members to thousands of patrons with free access. In order to better serve the community, Hewins expanded the library’s hours to include Sunday afternoons so that working people could take advantage of the institution’s resources. She also opened the first branch library in the North Street Settlement House where she lived, staffing it herself one hour each evening.

Her work in library advocacy was not confined to Hartford, however, as Hewins became a kind of ambassador for libraries throughout the state of Connecticut and beyond. When the American Library Association (ALA) was founded in 1876, she was an early member and became the first woman to address its annual conference. In 1891, she founded the Connecticut Public Library Committee and became its executive secretary. Over the next decade, Hartford’s “First Lady of the Library” traveled the state encouraging collaboration between libraries and schools. She set up traveling libraries and book depositories all around the state at settlement houses, schools, and factories. A nationally-respected expert on library management, Hewins oversaw the quickly growing Hartford Public Library system—a rarity for a woman at the time, as most libraries were headed by men.

Though her general work on behalf of libraries is well known, Hewins is best remembered for her tremendous advocacy work on behalf of children’s books and children as readers. She helped found the ALA’s Children’s Section in 1900. Having worked for over twenty-five years to create and maintain children’s programming in the Hartford library, it was not until 1904 that her dream of creating a children’s library was finally realized. The Hartford Children’s Library opened on November 22, 1904 and became one of the first children’s rooms in the United States. Though she hired the library’s first dedicated children’s librarian in 1907, Hewins continued her active involvement in children’s programming. When she traveled, particularly abroad, she wrote extensive letters to the library’s young patrons. These letters were gathered and published in 1923 as A Traveler’s Letters to Boys and Girls.

Her memoir, A Mid-Century Child and Her Books, was published in 1926. In it, she details her life-long love affair with books and reading, including her earliest memories of learning to read and her first books. In addition to her work inside the library, Hewins was an avid personal collector of books as she endeavored to re-create her childhood library, eventually greatly exceeding it. Her collection of over 4,000 volumes is now housed at the Connecticut State Library Museum and the Hartford Public Library.

Both an innovator and a reformer, Caroline Maria Hewins is credited with transforming the library into a major cultural and intellectual resource for the city of Hartford. In recognition of her contributions, in 1911, she became the first woman to receive a Master of Arts Honoris Causa from Trinity College. She died at her home in Hartford in November 1926, just months after publishing her memoir. Upon her death, the Library Journal wrote that she “was one of the beloved in the library profession. She made of herself a center from which radiated an immeasurable influence, especially in the great revolution in the library world which, instead of banning the children, made them the first thought of the librarian who could look at the future as well as the present.” In 1951, she was one of 40 librarians named to the Library Hall of Fame. The Hartford Public Library’s Hewins Scholarship is named in her honor and awards scholarships to young women intending to pursue careers as children’s librarians in public libraries.

During This Time
1800 - 1920: Industrialization & Reform