Watkinson History

History of the Watkinson Library

The Watkinson Library was founded in 1858 under the provisions of the will of David Watkinson, an English-born Hartford merchant and a founding trustee of Trinity College. Watkinson wanted Hartford to have a

Library of Reference, accessible at all reasonable hours and times to all citizens and other residents and visitors in the State of Connecticut under such controls, rules and regulations … as will best secure the preservation of the books … and comport with the general convenience.”

He specified that this “Library of Reference” — meaning that books would not circulate outside the building, though be accessible to all readers — be connected to the Connecticut Historical Society, then over thirty years old. To establish this library, Watkinson willed a sum of $100,000 to nine trustees (or those remaining alive at his decease) for general endowment. Of this sum, some money was designated to the purchase and development of what became the Watkinson Library, which was supervised by a large board of trustees, including George Brinley, a pioneer collector of Americana, and the prominent educator Henry Barnard.

First Librarian of the Watkinson Library. From Marian Clarke, David Watkinson’s Library (1966), p. 19.

Elected on January 17, 1863, the first librarian was James Hammond Trumbull, who had established Connecticut’s State Library and was then serving as Secretary of State for Connecticut. But it was not until after the Civil War had ended that the Watkinson opened for reference services, on August 28, 1866. Situated in the Wadsworth Atheneum, the Watkinson began with 12,000 volumes on its shelves, some of which arrived as gifts, but many were personally purchased by Trumbull. A true polymath, famed as an outstanding bibliographer of Americana and a leading scholar of American Indian languages, he served as Watkinson’s librarian from 1863 until his retirement in 1891.

The range and excellence of the Watkinson’s collections are due in no small part to the great learning of Trumbull, who was once described by Mark Twain as “probably the richest man in America in the matter of knowledge.” He prepared a “syllabus” to guide collection development, as well as rules and regulations for library use. Trumbull trained his successor, Frank Butler Gay, who served until 1934. For a span of over 70 years, these two librarians directed the growth of the Watkinson to a scholarly collection of 130,000 volumes in the humanities.

Beginning in 1890, the Watkinson and the Wadsworth Atheneum joined in a contractual agreement, which led in November 1892 to the re-opening of the Watkinson within a newly-built annex to the Atheneum. For sixty years, this agreement held. Then, in the mid-20th century, financial pressures led the Watkinson trustees to seek another institution with which to affiliate, and in 1952 the Library became a part of the Trinity College Library system. A unique feature of this union is that by charter the Watkinson Library maintains a distinct identity as a separate, non-circulating collection available to the needs of all researchers, not only those in the Trinity College community. The Watkinson’s collections were first housed at Trinity on the top floor of the library building newly constructed in 1952. In 1979, the Library was moved to its current location on the A-Floor in the first addition to the 1952 building. The public space was completely renovated in 2007.

In 1994, the Trinity College Archives was incorporated fully into the functions of the Watkinson Library. With many fits and starts, archival practices and procedures have been instituted as part of the work of the Watkinson.


Marian G.M. Clarke, David Watkinson’s Library: One Hundred Years in Hartford, Connecticut, 1866-1966 (Hartford: Trinity College Press, 1966).

S.L. Clemens, “James Hammond Trumbull: The Tribute of a Neighbor,” The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine 55 (November 1897-April 1898): 154-155.