The Watkinson Library is a public research library, the rare book and special collections of Trinity College, and the repository of the College Archives. Open to researchers by appointment on Tuesdays through Thursdays throughout the year, the John K. Davis Reading Room is located on Level A of the Raether Library and Information Technology Center. Exhibit cases within the Raether Library building often feature Watkinson Library collections. In addition, the Watkinson makes a portion of its distinctive collections available through a number of digital library platforms, public events, and exhibit loans.
Conceived at the bequest of Hartford merchant and public benefactor David Watkinson (1778-1857), the Watkinson Library was founded upon his death in 1858 to be “a library of Reference, to be accessible at all reasonable hours and times to all citizens and other residents and visitors in the State of Connecticut.“ To establish this library, Watkinson willed a princely sum of $100,000 to nine trustees (or those remaining alive at his decease) for general endowment of the library. Of this, an amount totaling $78,000 was set aside as principal for a Library Fund, from which only income could be disbursed. The remainder was to be utilized by a board of trustees to house books preferably in a “convenient connexion” with the Connecticut Historical Society and to hire a librarian who would select, maintain, and make available books, maps, and other library resources for non-circulating use by the general public.
Given that David Watkinson had been an incorporator and charter trustee of Washington College (now Trinity), the Watkinson Library has been a presence in the lives of the students and faculty of Trinity College from the beginning. At the opening of its doors to readers in August 1866, the Watkinson Library was pronounced as “the pride and honor and ornament of our city” of Hartford. Its placement on Main Street and its connection to several other literary and artistic institutions, namely the Connecticut Historical Society, the Wadsworth Atheneum, and the Hartford Young Men’s Institute, made it part of Hartford’s rise as a cultural capital during the post-Civil War era. The proximity of the state Capitol with its library, as well as Trinity College—located just under one-half a mile away, on land that would become the current location of the Connecticut State Capitol building—complemented the energy and utility of the Watkinson. The influence of the Watkinson on the education of the city’s school populations seemed most salient to the institution’s first Librarian James Hammond Trumbull, who wrote in 1876: “The professors and students of Trinity College, the instructors of public and private schools and their more advanced pupils, are the most frequent visitors at the Library.”
Even the staff of the Watkinson had connections to Trinity. William N.C. Carlton started as Assistant Librarian of the Watkinson in 1892. Yet seven years later, Carlton became librarian of Trinity, which awarded him an honorary Master’s degree, later adding the L.H.D. degree in 1915. Forrest Morgan, who had been recognized for his deep reading and command of American history with an honorary Master’s by Trinity, became assistant librarian of the Watkinson in 1908. In 1939, English Professor at Trinity, Arthur Adams, was simultaneously named Director of the Watkinson until 1951.
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. J. Cleaveland Cady was the architect who designed the structure. For sixty years, this agreement held, even though the library's shelves filled up beyond capacity. By the middle of the twentieth century, financial pressures led the Watkinson trustees to seek another institution with which to affiliate. Between 1949 and 1951, Trinity College offered to permanently house the Watkinson Library on its campus in a new library building to be constructed. After Donald B. Engley took the position of Associate Librarian at Trinity, he helped plan the move to Trinity. In 1952, the Watkinson 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 just 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.
Today, the Watkinson contains over 200,000 printed volumes ranging in date from the fifteenth century to the present; 4,000 linear feet of manuscript and archival material; 25,000 pieces of sheet music (1720-1950); over 5,000 sound recordings; and thousands of pieces of ephemera (postcards, greeting cards, trade cards, ballad sheets, prints, maps, playbills, posters, and broadsides).
David Watkinson's Library: One Hundred Years in Hartford, Connecticut, 1866-1966 (1966) by Marian G.M. Clarke, pp. 12-13, 15, 25, 65-66, 88-91, 98, 100, 118-124.
Trinity College Bulletin, April 1920 (Living Alumni) (1920), p. 12.
Connecticut Historical Society. Historical Documents And Notes: Genesis And Development of the Connecticut Historical Society And Associated Institutions In the Wadsworth Athenæum. (1889) Hartford [Conn.]: The Society, pp. 60-62.