Almost a decade ago Trenton lost four branch libraries due to budget cuts. But the only surviving municipal library in Trenton, the Trenton Free Public Library on Academy Street, is turning that page by reaching city residents with information and resources that are relevant to an evolving urban population.
A ribbon-cutting last December celebrated the opening of a young adult space, a new area to the left of the entrance to the 1976 library addition. Opening in time for the winter school break, the room offers study carrels, computers, charging stations, DVDs and CDs. The selection of books includes a section dedicated to college and career readiness.
And in an effort to bring the library to Trenton residents, last summer the library sent staff and books in a van to Columbus Park and George Page Park twice a week. The pop-up library allowed residents who wanted to check out a book to get a library card on the spot.
“It was quite successful,” says new library director Rebecca FrancoMartin, and it made people feel a part of the library. “We are hoping to continue to find opportunities such as the ‘mobile library’ to provide access to library services to city residents that may be unable to visit the library in person.”
Being a part of the New Jersey community is one reason FrancoMartin came to Trenton from a job at the New York Public Library in 2018 when she was hired as the Youth Services Librarian (a post now held by Damaris Azan). She was made director this past August. A lifelong New Jersey resident (mostly Monmouth County) she decided she would prefer to contribute to the local community “by serving the public in the capital city of New Jersey.” She holds a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University (history and political science) and a master’s degree in library science from Drexel University.
Active in community organizations such as the Center for World War II Studies and Conflict Resolution at Brookdale Community College, where she served on the executive board, she also earned an associate’s degree in early childhood education. She initially wanted to be a teacher, but began to investigate the field of library science and realized it can serve all populations and offer a broad range of social services.
FrancoMartin, the daughter of a firefighter and stay-at-home mom, had a small library in her home’s foyer and learned the pleasures of reading at an early age. Her grandmother and mom took her to the library weekly, where her favorite book was “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B.White. “Reading just expands a child’s mind” she said. “It’s very important. We promote literacy across the board.”
The Trenton Free Public Library, founded in 1750, is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, public library in New Jersey, and the second free library in the U.S., after Philadelphia’s free library. When the Trenton Library Company was started by Dr. Thomas Cadwalader, it is said that Benjamin Franklin purchased the first 50 books. The original 1902 building, still part of the present day library building, was built by architect Spencer Robert of Philadelphia and boasts a grand marble staircase, fireplaces, and an inspiring wood-accented reading room.
But the building, because of its age, needs repair. On the five-year “wish list” are capital projects such as rehabilitating the reference and adult space, which will be presented as part of a grant request when the Library Construction Bond Act opens for submissions from New Jersey libraries. The board of trustees and the director are working toward a complete technology upgrade in 2020 as well.
The library’s challenge is not only physical maintenance but getting the word out about the library’s many services, and at the same time getting its services more deeply into the community. “There’s not an easy way to get downtown,” says FrancoMartin. But the library also deals with competing priorities like activities, television, and online entertainment. To promote the new young adult room, flyers were sent around the city and through schools. “We do outreach on the ground,” says FrancoMartin, such as tables at events around Trenton.
Some of the services at Trenton include book clubs, community spaces, resources for housing, adult basic education, microfilm and digital resources, and programs and workshops. The library is opening a health corner for information on medical conditions, and Youth Services offers early literacy help and tutoring.
Especially welcoming is the renovated children’s room in the lower level, brightly painted with a mural, three-dimensional trees, and a section where youngsters can snack.
Unique to the original building is the Trentoniana room, with artifacts dating back to Revolutionary War, such as a collection from the Battle of Trenton. The full Trentoniana collection includes photo records of almost all buildings in Trenton (if you want to see what your building looked like before it was renovated or an addition completed).
It boasts the section of the Washington Triumphal Arch over the bridge at Trenton, which greeted Washington on his 1789 Trenton stop on the way to his inauguration, and includes the William Pedrick painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. When the original library company was destroyed by British and Hessian occupation, notices were put in newspapers asking for any outstanding books to be returned. Three of those books survive in the Trentoniana collection.
Funding from the City of Trenton is about $2 million, which is a decrease from the approximately $3.5 million in 2010, according to newspaper reports from that year. Funding from the city is enhanced by some grants, a state contribution.
New Jersey ranks 34th in the nation for state aid to local public libraries, according to the New Jersey Library Association. State funding took a hit of a 42 percent reduction in fiscal year 2011 and has not recovered. The Briggs, Cadwalader, East Trenton, and Skelton branch libraries were closed around that time.
The loss of the branches was ironic, points out FrancoMartin. “When you have a recession, people look to the library for help, for jobs, resume writing, a fax machines, homework help when parents have to work more hours.”
Today’s libraries face the digital divide: those who don’t have access to WiFi and computers, and those who do, and do research at home. The library provides 31 public computers and WiFi, but even for those who are digitally connected, the library provides guided research and reliable resources, notes FrancoMartin.
The staff of 33, 13 of whom are fulltime, partners with colleges and a wide range of Trenton social services, in meeting the varied needs of residents, says FrancoMartin. This past November, Medicare open enrollment was a popular topic and the subject of a workshop. A Friends of the Library group helps add to the 200,000-plus collection.
FrancoMartin has been engaging with community organizations. “We night be able to say, ‘go here in Trenton for what you need.’ We’ve been using this model in Trenton. A database can be daunting. We can provide guidance.” In addition to 12 databases of scholarly resources, the library has a “mamava” lactation station for nursing mothers, a poetry cafe, and an art gallery showcasing locally created art. Among many other offerings, there are death records, marriage records, and World Book online.
While the future of the Trenton Free Public Library includes community meeting spaces, information resources and the availability of popular CDs and DVDs, the core users like physical books. In fact, says FrancoMartin, recent library visitors have sought out urban fiction.
“There is something about putting a book in your hand,” she says. “Nothing replaces that.”
Trenton Free Public Library, 120 Academy Street. Mondays through Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 609-392-7188 or www.trentonlib.org.