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Want Some Hartford History? Look No Further Than The Hartford Public Library

STEVEN GOODE

December 21, 2009

HARTFORD - If it's about Connecticut's capital city, you'll find it on the third floor of the Hartford Public Library.That's where the Hartford History Center, a collection of more than 50,000 books, photographs, trade publications, postcards and other items chronicling 300 years of life in Hartford, is waiting for the next researcher, author or just an interested amateur trying to find out where a long-dead relative is buried.

Brenda J. Miller, curator and collection manager for the center, points to a guest book that she estimates contains about 1,000 signatures since the center opened in May 2008 in a climate- and light-controlled room at the library's main branch at 500 Main St.

They come or call from throughout the world to learn about the evolution of the city and its people. The collection includes street photographer Tony DeBonee's collection of images from the 1930s to the 1990s, the photo archives of The Hartford Times from 1955 to 1976, various municipal publications and volumes of Geer's Hartford City Directory.

"Every week we find something new to delight us," Miller said. "This is a special collection."

Before 2008, the Hartford collection had been part of the overall library. A successful fundraising effort in the 1990s led to the history center's creation, but first the collection had to be stored for six years while the library was renovated.

Miller is happy with the level of interest in the center since it opened, but said she's always looking for ways to spur more interest.

The center recently opened an exhibit of children's literature written by Caroline Hewins, who was Hartford's chief librarian from 1875 to 1926. Also, research has been underway for about a year on a project to document the history of Hartford's park system, which was the first in the country to be publicly funded.

As part of the project, archivist Gary E. Wait has been documenting correspondence, manuscripts and photographs of the city's parks. Once he is finished, the center plans to make the parks collection accessible through a multimedia archive of material from the 1850s to the 1940s on the library's website. The project is scheduled to be completed by next September.

Wait said that he has come across a few surprises during his research, including the fact that Horace Bushnell envisioned the state Capitol where it is now, on the southwest corner of Bushnell Park on the former site of Trinity College, as early as 1853. It was built on that site in 1878.

Miller said that once people visit the center once, they usually become regulars, partly because researching a subject or tracing a family history can be time-consuming.

Retiree Earl Shepherd is a familiar face in the center who has been "intensively" reconstructing the historical presence of African Americans in Hartford, from where they lived to what they did and how much property they owned.

Shepherd said that he also uses materials from the state library and the Connecticut Historical Society, but that the history center is where he goes to "dig even deeper."

"If you want to do the job, you have to come to a place like this," said Shepherd, who plans to publish his findings sometime next year.

Visit courant. com/library for more photos.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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