1886 After several unsuccessful attempts at creating a free public library, the City of New Haven, in September, passed legislation providing that “the City of New Haven establish a free public library” and appropriated $12,000 to start the library.

1887 A location for the new library was secured by leasing the second floor of 793 Chapel Street, previously occupied by the Tradesmen’s Bank. On February 21, the New Haven Free Public Library opened its doors to the public, offering twenty-six newspapers and eighty periodicals to the first patrons. Circulation of the Library’s thirty-five hundred volumes began on June 7. The New Haven Evening Register for that date commented “New Haven people have long wished for a free library. Now they have got it, and a good one it is too.” In the first year, the Library had the third largest circulation in New England, and the fifth largest in the nation. Willis K. Stetson was the first librarian.

1889-1891 The Library was an immediate success and quickly outgrew the Chapel Street location. The city issued bonds in the amount of $100,000 for a library building. During the same year, a bequest of $68,000 from the estate of Philip Marett became available to the city for the purchase of books for a free public library. In 1890, the Third Congregational Church property on Church Street was purchased at a cost of about $71,000. In January, 1891, after extensive remodeling, the New Haven Free Public Library reopened. The building was expected to fulfill the needs of the Library for many years to come.

1895 The startling idea began to get about that readers should be allowed to browse among the books, and, to that end, the Library inaugurated the open-shelf room, later to become open stacks. At the same time, provision was made for a separate Children’s Room–one of the first in the country.

The New Haven Free Public Library’s first location in the Tradesmen’s Bank
The Library’s second location in
the Third Congregational Church
Patrons at newspaper tables in the Third Congregational Church


1904-1905 The most noteworthy event of 1904, according to the Annual Report of the Board of Directors, was the receipt of $3,500 of the $5,000 bequest of Philo S. Bennett. In the same year, and again in the following year, Mr. Stetson reported on the “insufficient accommodations of the library,” writing that twice the present space was needed at once, and fifty percent again for future growth.

1906-1911 “Gentlemen:–If the City of New Haven will provide a suitable site for it, I desire to erect and present to the City a handsome, fireproof building for the Public Library.” With these words, and a gift of $300,000, Mary E. Ives (Mrs. Hoadley Ives), became the founding mother of the present New Haven Free Public Library. The site, at the corner of Elm and Temple Streets where the Library stands today, was purchased by the city for $95,000. The architect, Cass Gilbert, designed the brick and marble building to harmonize with the traditional architecture of New Haven, and especially with the United Church nearby. The building was formally dedicated to the City of New Haven on May 27, 1911.

1917 The Fair Haven Branch Library, first branch in the system, opened at 182 Grand Avenue. It was built with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation.

The forerunner of the Dixwell Avenue Branch Library opened in a space provided by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company at 213 Division Street.

1922 The Donald G. Mitchell Memorial Library which had been established in 1910 as a private library and memorial to this local author, was transferred to the City of New Haven and became a branch of the Free Public Library.

The Dixwell Avenue Branch Library opened its new building near Thompson Street with funds provided by the Carnegie Corporation.

1929 Lindsey Brown became the second City Librarian succeeding Willis K. Stetson.

1936 Items of interest from the 50th Anniversary Report issued in 1937: Volumes in collection 1,051,940; average daily circulation 3,426 volumes; library cards in use 40,176 (one person in four in the City had a library card). Of Postal Reserves the report said “These are for people who want to read best sellers at the same moment that everyone else wants to read them (don’t we all?).” And of the Business and Industrial Department–“Not interested in culture–concentrates on investment, advertising, engineering, trades, accounting, the income tax, and such sordid matters.”

1941 The Dixwell Avenue Branch Library was renamed the Willis K. Stetson Branch Library in honor of the first City Librarian.

An early photo of Ives Main Library
The Fair Haven Branch Library in winter 1926
The exterior of the Beecher Mansion, which originally housed the Mitchell Branch Library


1955 Joseph L. Wheeler, formerly the Director of the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore, surveyed the Main Library at the request of the Board of Directors, and noted that the building was ill planned as to ‘convenience, efficiency and economy in operation,’ and designed and constructed in such a manner as to make alterations almost impossible.” He also recommended better budgets, more and better-paid staff and the closing of two underutilized branches.

1959 Meredith Bloss succeeded Lindsey Brown as the third City Librarian.

1964 A report by Dr. Emerson Greenway, Director of the Free Library of Philadelphia, recommended a new and relocated Main Library.

1966 In April, a new building for the Mitchell Branch Library was dedicated. It was designed by Gilbert Switzer, and replaced the 100 year old dwelling that had housed the Library since 1910.

1968 The Stetson Branch Library was relocated to a new building designed by William deCossy at 200 Dixwell Avenue. It was partially funded by The Carnegie Corporation.

As the collection of books and services to the community expanded, the need for a new building became imperative. In May, in accordance with a recommendation of the City’s Community Renewal Program for a new Central Library building, the Main Library property was sold to the State of Connecticut for $800,000. A building program was written, and an architect selected. The new Library was to be included in the planned Government Center complex on Church Street.

1978 Sumner White became the fourth City Librarian succeeding Meredith Bloss.

1981 Plans for inclusion of a new Main Library in the Government Center were discarded because the City wanted to use the site for commercial purposes.

1984-1987 After years of delay and indecision, it was finally agreed that renovation and expansion of the existing Main Library building would be preferable to the construction of a new facility at a different site. The City of New Haven bought back the Main Library property from the State for the original sale price of $800,000, to be paid back over twenty years. In 1987, the centennial year of the Library’s founding, the New York architectural firm of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates began the $14,500,000 renovation and expansion of the Main Library building.

1988 The Main Library operation moved to temporary quarters in the Seamco Building at One Long Wharf while construction and remodeling were in progress.

RENOVATION AND EXPANSION MAIN BRANCH IN 1988 The $14,500,000 renovation and expansion of the Main Library was designed by the architectural firm of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates with Hugh Hardy as partner-in-charge. Cass Gilbert’s 1911 neo-Georgian building was carefully restored and expanded by sixty-five thousand square feet bringing the overall size of the building to one hundred and three thousand square feet. The new construction was designed to integrate with and complement the old, while, at the same time, proclaiming its own contemporary identity.

1990 The New Haven Free Public Library returned to the Elm Street site. The building was dedicated on Sunday, November 4, and opened to the public on November 5, 1990.

1993-1996 With the Main (Ives Branch) newly renovated, attention turned towards the branches. Fair Haven Branch closed in 1993 for renovations that were completed in 1996. Opening Day for Fair Haven was February 14 and included a new Opening Day Book Collection built on private dollars.

Sumner White retired in 1996.

1997 Howard F. McGinn became the fifth City Librarian, succeeding Sumner White.

Main Library’s Children’s Room is named for Anne S. Bittker, a generous benefactor and library enthusiast. Her family perpetually endows the purchase of children’s books for the system.

Stetson Branch closes for renovations.

1998-1999 With her generouse gift, Deborah Rose provides new public access computers: a year later, the computers are hooked to newly installed T-1 lines throughout they system which revolutionizes computer accessibility for the time.

Stetson Branch reopens in February 1999 with an Opening Day Collection provided by donor dollars and a highly prized Van Vechten photo collection of Harlem Renaissance figures gracing Stetson’s walls.

The exterior of the New Haven Free Public Library in 1957
An interior shot of the New Haven Free Public Library in 1988 as they prepared for the renovation and expansion


2000 James C. Welbourne became the sixth City Librarian, succeeding Howard F. McGinn.

Mitchell Branch renovations begin as Technology Access Centers are being developed throughout the system.

2001-2002 Priority Schools State grant purchases and equips a new library “Readmobile.”

As Mitchell Branch reopens with a new donor raised Opening Day Book Collection in 2002, site acquisition and design for a new Hill branch library on Daggett and Washington Avenue is completed. The original Hill Branch, Davenport, opened in June 1922 and was on Portsea Street before moving into Roberto Clemente School in 1978. It closed in 1986 leaving the neighborhood without a branch.

2003-2004 Library received its two largest bequests from relatively unknown New Haven residents: John Dorsey and Armando Silvestrini.

A newly revitalized Patrons Board begins a Capital Campaign to raise a million dollars: $500,000 for the new Hill branch and $500,000 for the library system. The new Hill branch is to be named the Courtland Seymour Wilson Library in honor of the civic and neighborhood leader.

2006 Wilson Branch opens at 303 Washington Avenue in October. It is New Haven’s first 21st century library offering cutting edge service to the community.

2010 Christopher Korenowsky became the seventh City Librarian, succeeding James C. Welbourne.

2012 NHFPL celebrates its 125th anniversary year with our “125+Beyond” marketing campaign, featuring graphics designed by group c.

2013 NHFPL embarks on its first year of partnership with the popular READy For the Grade program, which helps prevent “summer slide” with group reading lessons, one-on-one tutoring, and family learning nights that promote at-home reading.

2014 Martha Brogan becomes the eighth City Librarian, succeeding Christopher Korenowsky.

2018 The newly renovated innovation space, Ives Squared, opened on June 27 courtesy of a grant from CTNext.

2019 NHFPL wins the National Medal for Museum & Library Science from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

John Jessen becomes the ninth City Librarian, succeeding Martha Brogan.

The New Haven Free Public Library celebrates its 125th anniversary

A photo of the Ives Squared innovation space
taken by Garrett Rowland


2020 NHFPL wins the Connecticut Library Association Publicity Award for our video series, My NHFPL Story, created in partnership with local videographer Travis Carbonella.

COVID-19 hits New Haven. The Library shifts to virtual services and responds to the pandemic by offering curbside pickup and remote printing services, auto-renewing items, and waiving fines. Upon reopening, NHFPL offers self-checkout stations at each of our five neighborhood locations.

NHFPL announces we are fine-free, no longer charging fees for overdue materials. We are among the first libraries in CT to adopt this change.

The Library begins loaning Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hotspots to make the Internet more accessible for our community.

2021 NHFPL joins the newly created New Haven Cultural Equity Team.

2022 In February, NHFPL is designated an official passport facility with the opening of our Passport Office at the Ives Main Library.

John Jessen passes away while serving as City Librarian and Director. The NHFPL Board appoints former American Library Association President Maureen Sullivan as Interim City Librarian and Director.

The Book Pedaler, the Library’s new book bike, takes its inaugural ride to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the historic Farmington Canal Trail. The book bike is sponsored by a generous grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, administered by the Connecticut State Library.

In June, Stetson Branch Library opens the doors to its state-of-the-art new facility. Located at 197 Dixwell Avenue, the new Stetson Library is a pivotal anchor for the Dixwell Q House.

2023 Maria Bernhey is appointed the tenth City Librarian, succeeding John Jessen and joining him as the second internal promotion to this appointment in the 21st century.

The NHFPL Book Pedaler at Bike to Work Day 2024
taken by Andy Bromage

Stetson Branch Library opens its doors at 197 Dixwell Avenue in 2024.


Ives Main Library

A major effort was made to preserve and restore the existing murals, which originated as Public Works Administration projects. Two lunettes, above the east and west walls of the Main Hall, illustrate scenes from New Haven’s past. They were designed by Bancel LaFarge of Mount Carmel. The lunette on the eastern side was completed in 1942 by Deane Keller, a Yale professor and one of the “monuments men”, after La Farge’s death. The Rip Van Winkle murals in the Meeting Room were painted by a team of eight artists led by Salvatore DeMaio and Frank J. Rutkowski, and completed in July, 1934.

The former Children’s Room (now Program Room) showing part of the Story of Rip Van Winkle mural
The two lunettes can be seen above the east and west walls of the Main Hall

Previous Stetson Branch Library

The READ mural was created by local artist Katro Storm and was installed in the summer of 2009. The mural contains portraits of notable individuals from the Dixwell area as well as several national figures. This project has been described as “a labor of love” that has touched many hearts across the community. While Katro was working on the project he would get daily visits from people across the Dixwell neighborhood who shared his excitement and enthusiasm for the mural. The finished product was the result of many months of commitment, hard work, and dedication, and continues to be a draw in the community.

READ mural created by Katro Storm outside the Previous Stetson Branch Library

*NOTE: The Stetson Branch Library has moved.

Library Leaded Glass

The stained glass windows were commissioned in accordance with the Percent for Art City ordinance. They were designed by David Wilson of South New Berlin, New York, and include: a large circular laylight above the main entry foyer; two rectangular laylights at the top of the stairs; a rectangular leaded window behind the Information Center; and three half-round windows in the periodical room.

The leaded glass window and laylights for both the old and new areas of Ives Memorial Library (the Main Branch of the Library) are based on geometric design. The circular laylight above the main entry and the rectangular laylights at the top of the stairs are designed to be contextual to the original Cass Gilbert building interior without slavishly imitating the past style. The three laylights relate to each other in both pattern and color. Opaque glass predominates, and non-transparent glazing is used because the view beyond is not desirable.

Looking through the main hall to the reading room beyond, still on the central axis, there is a rectangular pink window. A combination of transparent and opaque glass modifies the view of the brick wall behind the Library. The glass colors are keyed to the colors in the reading room area. The wild pink and magenta and green “streaky” glass is hand-made in Seattle, Washington.

The glass in the new area of the building is more flamboyant: the glass in the old, more reserved. The three half-round windows located in the reading room to the right of the Main Hall use violet colors to compliment the terracotta colors in the room. These windows are the only ones in the building which receive direct sunlight. They also use the wild, streaky glass but in a combination of grey, blue, and clear.

David Wilson

David Wilson was born in the United Kingdom in 1941 and attended the Middleborough College of Art and the Central School of London. In 1963 he moved to New York City and then to South New Berlin, New York. Wilson received an Award of Excellence in Design from the Art Commission of the City of New York.

His work can be found at the St. George Public Library on Staten Island, the new offices of Leo Burnett in Chicago, and the NewKirk Avenue Station of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. David Wilson received a commission from the State of Connecticut Art in Public Places for a leaded glass window at the Northwest Regional Center in Torrington, Connecticut.

You can view this large circular laylight above the main entry foyer
One of three half-round windows located in Ives Squared
This rectangular pink window can be seen on the far wall behind the information desk