Facing Harriet Tubman Square (formerly Washington Park), the historic Newark Public Library traces its beginnings to the Newark Library Association, which was formed in 1847. Forty years later, the people of Newark approved the founding of a Free Public Library, which subsequently acquired association’s holdings. The Newark Free Public Library opened on West Park Street and offered 10,000 books which were shelved in open stacks, an innovation at the time. Eventually, the need for more space necessitated the construction of a new building at 5 Washington Street. Shortly before the new building was occupied, then director Frank P. Hill accepted the offer to become head of the Brooklyn Public Library, and he was succeeded by John Cotton Dana. The new building opened in 1901 and since then Newark Public Library has served the citizens of Newark providing books, programs, and support for the community.
Left: Newark Library, 1910
Click Below to Expand More History
- 1889-1901: Frank Pierce Hill Read more.
- 1902-1929: John Cotton Dana Read more.
- 1929-1942: Beatrice Winser: our first woman director. Read more.
- 1943-1958: John Boyton Kaiser
- 1958-1972: James E Bryan
- 1972-1977: J. Bernard Schein
- 1977-1979: William Urban
- 1979-1987: Thomas J. Alrutz
- 1988-2004: Alex Boyd: our first Black director
- 2005-2015: Wilma Grey: our first Black female director
- 2017-2019: Jeffrey Trzeciak
- 2020-2022: Joslyn Bowling Dixon
- 2023 – Christian Zabriskie
Timeline of Key Events
Main Library and All Libraries
- 1892: Library grants public access to all stacks.
- 1901: “Travelling libraries” installed in schools, new building opened.
- 1902: Dana established the Picture Collection.
- 1938: New Jersey Collection officially established by Winser (collecting began 1920s).
- 1939: 50th Anniversary Celebrated: Fifty Years: 1889-1939 written.
- 1940-1941: Music Collection begins collecting records.
- 1942: Library establishes War Information Center. Victory Book Drive occurs.
- 1944: Young People’s Collection (Teen Room) gets its own room.
- 1951: New Jersey Room opens. The first newspaper was reproduced on microfilm Newark Daily Advertiser.
- 1955: The first international interlibrary loan was negotiated between Newark Library and the German government.
- 1956: Library has 96941 cardholders – an all time high.
- 1963: Library celebrates 75 years as a free library. Library becomes a full US Government Depository (previously selective depository).
- 1964: Interlibrary Loan Office established. Mayor Addonizio threatens to close library, but library receives Federal Aid.
- 1969: Library again threatened with closure. 500 citizens attend meeting in City Hall to oppose closing the library, budget is restored. First Star Trek convention takes place at Main Library.
- 1971: Over 100,000 reference questions answered by the library. PhotoLab installed.
- 1972: Newark News Morgue acquired by library.
- 1979: Library begins using OCLC. Large grant received to increase services to Hispanic Community
- 1989: La Sala is founded at the main library. The African American Room opens at the Main Library.
- 1991: The African American Room renamed after librarian James Brown.
- 1996: The Library unveils its website, www.npl.org.
- 1997: Technology Training Room opens.
- 1999: The Victoria Technology Center opens, funded by grants from the Victoria Foundation and MCI WorldCom’s Library-LINK Program.
- 2001: The NJHRIC is founded at the Main Library.
- 2002: NJ Center of the Book designates Newark Library as a Literary Landmark.
- Dec 21, 2005:Charles F. Cummings, Assistant Director for Special Collections and Statewide Outreach, passed away. Mr. Cummings served as Newark City Historian since 1988. The New Jersey Information Center would be renamed the Charles F. Cummings Information Center the following year.
- 2009: William J. Dane, Head of Special Collections and Keeper of Prints and Works on Paper, retires after 62 years of service.
- 2009-2010: Funding is cut, but mostly restored after public protests.
- 2010-2011: A Community Development Block grant funded interior renovations such as the installation of new carpeting and painting and the Front Entrance Access Project, the historically sensitive construction of two granite ADA accessible ramps.
- 2016: Library receives $1 million grant to digitize materials from the Carnegie Foundation.
- 2019: Library opens LGBTQ Center.
Branches and Extension Service
- 1904: First branch established on Academy Street (Business Branch).
- 1905: Clark Thread Company becomes 2nd branch, six more branches established within a few years.
- 1907: Roseville at 429 7th Avenue, Ironbound, 422 Lafayette, and Springfield branch open. School and Art Dept established.
- 1918: Branches close due to WWI.
- 1923: First city built and city owned branch: Springfield branch reestablished at Hayes Street. Van Buren Branch opens.
- 1924: Roseville branch opens at 99 5th St.
- 1925: Clinton branch opens.
- 1927: Vailsburg branch opens.
- 1928: Branch opens in Kresge Department Store, closes 1933.
- 1929: Weequahic Branch oepns.
- 1930: North End Branch opens. “The Nine Branches of the Newark Public Library” written.
- 1931-1933: First bookmobile service.
- 1946: Clinton Avenue and Branch Brook Branches open.
- 1958: Bookmobile reestablished.
- 1962: The library served a total of 10 hospitals.
- 1969: Extension Department has 25 total collections in hospitals, senior centers, community centers, etc.
- 1970: Outreach program launches sending out many more books to the community.
- 1974: First Avenue and Madison Branches founded.
- 1992: Bookmobile shuts down. First Avenue, Madison and Mt. Vernon School Branches threatened with closure. Mount Vernon eventually given to school system.
- 1997: Van Buren opens renovated and expanded building.
- 1998: Business Branch closes.
- 2009: After cuts in funding, Roseville Branch closes.
- Aug 27, 2010: First Avenue and Madison branches close.
- 2021: Clinton Branch closes.
Architectural History of the Library
The cornerstone of the Newark Public Library, although dated 1898 (the year excavation began), was laid at 5 Washington Street on January 26, 1899. The completed structure, built of brick and faced with Indiana limestone along the front and sides, was dedicated on March 14, 1901. The building was designed by the firm of Rankin and Kellogg of Philadelphia, which was among the most well known architects of the Beaux–Arts style and designed several prominent civic institutions, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture Administration Building in Washington, D.C. and the Camden County (NJ) Court House. Francis Brothers & Jellett, of Philadelphia, prepared the plans for the heating and steam work, and James M. Seymour, of Newark, served as the consulting engineer.
John Hall Rankin and Thomas M. Kellogg’s renderings of the four–story Italian Renaissance building were based on the 15th century Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy. The interior of the Library was to serve as a museum, lecture hall, and gallery, providing educational and cultural experiences in an aesthetic setting. The structure, with interior arches and mosaics, boasted a magnificent open center court that extended upward to a stained glass laylight at the fourth floor.
The edifice, which cost $315,000 to construct, spanned 102 feet along Washington Street and had a depth of 137 feet. Along the building’s limestone façade, the first floor included arched windows, horizontal grooving along the surface, and two Roman–style iron and glass lanterns on either side of the entrance. String courses, decorative horizontal bands, projected between each floor. Arched windows were constructed on the second story, and ten high relief medallions were placed in the spandrels, four of which contain a book and a lamp, symbols of knowledge. The third level contained rectangular windows flanked with pilasters featuring Corinthian capitals. Below the projecting flat cornice near the tin hip roof (changed to copper in 1906), a frieze was carved revealing various areas of knowledge: philosophy, religion, sociology, philology, science, fine arts, literature, and history.
As visitors entered the Library through the arched doorway, they passed through a marble–clad vestibule into an illuminated and spacious central court. The atrium featured groin vaulted ceilings covered with mosaics and a plaster frieze and Roseal, Carrara, Pavanazzo, and gray marble columns, wainscoting, flooring, medallions, panels, and stairways.
Located in the center of the central court, the massive marble staircase led users to the adult reading rooms, catalog room, and collection areas of the second floor.
The monumental oak–paneled reading room, which extended along the front of the building, emulated the Bates reading room at the Boston Public Library. The large space, now called Centennial Hall, contained an ornamental 22–foot high ceiling, parquet flooring, eight–foot oak wainscoting and pilasters, and large limestone fireplaces at either end.
Eighteen painted embossments, featuring the trade devices of early printers and bookmakers, such as William Caxton and William Morris, decorated the spandrels between the arches.
On the second and third floors, hallways in the form of arcades led visitors around the open center space.
In 1909, the Newark Museum was located on the fourth floor, and lecture rooms and galleries provided a venue for meetings, concerts, and exhibits. The book stacks, which were open to the public, occupied the rear of the building.
Commissioned in 1903 and installed six years later, Wisdom Teaching the Children of Men, a bronze relief over the front entryway of the Library, was sculpted by Newarker John Flanagan. Flanagan was probably best known for later designing the George Washington quarter for the U.S. Mint.
By 1919, the building was experiencing overcrowding of library users and growing collections. In 1921, the trustees approved a two–story, 15,000 square foot addition (plans were submitted by John H. Ely and Wilson C. Ely, architects in Newark) to utilize property at the back and side of the Library. The construction would rest on piers atop the rear court and boiler room and allowed for five parking spaces in the rear of the structure. Completed in 1922 by the T.J. O’Halloran Company, the new addition doubled the size of the children’s room on the first floor.
In 1927, the Friends of the Library commissioned the artist Robert Hales Ives Gammell, a Classical Realist and member of the group known as The Boston Painters to paint a mural. The mythological themed triptych, The Fountain of Knowledge, was unveiled on the east wall of the second floor and depicts a group of sages, the Fountain of Knowledge, and the Nine Muses. The muses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, are accompanied by Apollo and carry knowledge to the four corners of the world. A likeness of John Cotton Dana, who served as the institution’s librarian and influential second director until his death in 1929, can be discerned in the far left corner.
In 1931, a four–story, 2,000 square–foot addition was built between the original Library structure and the two–story construction that had been completed in 1922. Books stacks, designed by Wilson and Ely, were also built that year. The new space included an elevator, providing access to the book stacks and enabling more efficient shelving of books.
A two–story, 10,000 square foot brick maintenance building was added at the rear of the property in 1949. Its purpose was to house a cabinet shop and areas for painting, binding, and the mounting of exhibits. A covered passageway connected the maintenance building to the Library. Twenty years later, a third floor was added to the structure.
In 1952, the Library completed a $1,500,000 modernization project, which entailed major structural changes in the main building. Key contractors included the Newark architectural firm of Epple & Seaman and the Becker Construction Company. During this time, the central marble staircase was removed, opening the atrium on the first floor. A new staircase was constructed at the rear and an elevator was installed on the right side of the central court.
Gammell’s mural, The Fountain of Knowledge, was concealed with wooden panels, and coffered ceilings in the building were hidden behind acoustic tiles. The large reading room on the second floor, which closed to the public in 1936, was redecorated. A dropped ceiling and fluorescent lights were installed and the space was used as the Popular Reading Room.
The former lecture hall on the fourth floor was restored to almost its original size, and the Library proceeded to host performances, presentations, and meetings in the Auditorium. Also on the fourth floor, new spaces welcomed the music collection and offered five soundproof listening rooms and a gallery. Additionally, services temporarily housed at the museum annex at 43 Washington Street during the renovation (Teen Corner, children’s room, school library services, and art and music department) returned to the Main Library. The first floor welcomed the Teen Corner, a children’s room, and an education department. Other work included replacing the roof; rewiring; relighting; installation of additional book stacks; new heating, ventilating, and plumbing; and the elimination of the generating plant in the basement. The removal of the generating equipment allowed the accommodation of more book storage stacks for government and other publications.
The Library was again refurbished in the 1980s in order to recover the elegance of its early decades, while increasing its ability to provide the most complete, up–to–date services and materials to the city and the larger community. In 1987, the second floor reading room was restored as Centennial Hall to serve as a meeting and reception area for Library and community functions. The dropped ceiling was removed to reveal the vaulted roof, and ornamental plasterwork and oak paneling, which had been taken down to accommodate book shelves, were replaced. The Gammell mural on the second floor was uncovered and restored in 1988.
In 2006, the original front doors were replaced with new wooden ones. The vestibule was transformed into a brighter space, and display cases were mounted. Renovations were also carried out in the lobby (windows were removed and restored, ceilings, walls, and floors were cleaned), and the northeast corner of the first floor was reconfigured into a media room. New security and information desks were installed, and the large decorative atrium laylight was repaired.
Additional renovation projects, provided by a Community Development Block Grant, took place at the Main Library in 2010–2011. The award funded interior renovations such as new carpeting and painting. It also provided revenue for the exterior Front Entrance Access Project, two granite ADA accessible ramps approved by the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee and designed by the architectural firm of Johnson Jones.
The Newark Public Library is situated within the James Street Commons Historic District, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and one of the oldest sections of Newark. The Library faces Harriet Tubman Square (formerly Washington Park, and earlier known as “the Market Place” and then as “the Upper Commons.” It was within this historically significant area that the city’s first iron foundry, brewery, and Seth Boyden’s factory were located. The district contains one of the largest remaining concentrations of red-brick townhouses in the city of Newark and reflects the architecture of the post–Civil War era.
History of Black Librarians at NPL
The first Black librarian at NPL was Theresa Knight (later Moore) hired by the library in 1938. Theresa served at Springfield, Van Buren, Main and North End as a children’s librarian (for the majority of the time a Junior Librarian) throughout her career. She worked at the library through the 1960s.
Later in 1938, Elitea Allison was hired. She was the wife of Hughes Allison, a well known playwright in Newark. Elitea Allison was also a Children’s Librarian and she was the first Black librarian to be appointed a Senior Children’s and Education Librarian, by 1945. She worked at the library until 1983 (45 years of service) and donated her husband’s papers to the New Jersey Information Center.
In 1946, Mildred Lockett (later Lipscome) was hired. She was possibly the third Black librarian hired, and was a Senior Librarian in the Education Division by 1953. She worked at the library through the 1980s.
The first Black male librarian was likely Lewis V. Graves who was hired at the start of 1949. He worked at the Springfield branch until his retirement in 1993. He was also a Tuskegee Airman. He was commended in 2017.
James Brown was hired in 1962. He founded the James Brown African American Room which he ran until his death in 1991. The name of the African American Room honors him to this day. He was passionate about sharing Black history and culture and educating the community.
In 1988, Alex Boyd was hired the first Black director of the library. He served as director until 2004 and was beloved by library staff and patrons and accomplished many great initiatives while director of the library including microfilming the Newark News morgue archive.
Wilma Grey was hired in 1969 and became the library’s first Black female director in 2005. She served until retirement in 2015, a total of 46 years at the library.
The Library and the Latino Community
In the late 1970s, the Library began actively recruiting Latino librarians and offering bilingual services and programs to help address the informational needs of the growing Latino population in Newark. A Spanish hotline was created for Spanish speakers to call and have their questions addressed by a Spanish speaking librarian. A Spanish language book collection was expanded on for the community to borrow and read materials in their language. Additionally, bilingual outreach services and programs were initiated to inform the Latino population of the library’s resources.
Within a decade, the Latino community became more diverse as the fastest growing immigrant group in the city. Annual Hispanic Heritage celebrations were initiated to celebrate their rich history and diverse cultures and to acknowledge the many achievements they’ve made. In 1989, La Sala Hispanoamericana was established to house the largest Spanish language book collection of any public library in the state and to provide a welcoming space for the Spanish dominant patron.
As the Latino population continued to increase and grow older, their history was being lost. By 2000, when the Latino population accounted for 13% of the state’s total population, there was no institution recording their history. Through the Latino community’s advocacy and fundraising support, the New Jersey Hispanic Research & Information Center at The Newark Public Library (NJHRIC) was founded to document the history of New Jersey’s Latino community. The NJHRIC incorporated La Sala Hipsanoamericana and created the Puerto Rican Community Archive and Hispanic Reference Collection.
Today, thousands of digitized images documenting the history of New Jersey’s Latino community are available on our digital website, https://digital.npl.org. We’ve expanded our outreach efforts to include virtual programming with LIVE streaming through social media to audiences worldwide. And we’re looking forward to a new space that will physically accommodate all that NJHRIC has to offer.
In 2021, the NJHRIC celebrated 40+ years of services to the Latino community. On display in our digital exhibit is evidence of these milestones and artifacts from the community that made it possible.
Other Noteworthy Librarians & Staff
- Charles F. Cummings was director of the Charles F. Cummings New Jersey Information Center and city historian. He worked at the library from 1963-2005. Read more about him here.
- Jackie Dickerson was the mother of famed director and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson. She worked as Supervising Library Assistant, for many years in Audiovisual Materials. She was honored for 35 years at the library in 1991.
- Assemblyman Bill Payne worked at the library as a youth making deliveries and credits the library for his decision to attend college.
Digitized Library Histories
Fifty Years: 1889-1939 (36 pages)
Newark Public Library History by James E. Bryan (c. 1980) (148 pages)
“The Newark Public Library: A Brief History” by Bruce Ford (c. 1990s) (31 pages)
The Nine Branches of the Newark Public Library (1930)