The Courtland Seymour Wilson Branch of the New Haven Free Public Library celebrated 10 years of promoting literacy and building community at its anniversary celebration Thursday.
Addressing a crowd of roughly 50, Mayor Toni Harp, City Librarian Martha Brogan, NHFPL Chair Michael Morand and library patron Latisha Blake described the branch’s positive presence in the Hill neighborhood since its 2006 opening. Bearing in mind the legacy of Courtland S. Wilson, a neighborhood activist, mentor and local politician, the speakers lauded the branch as a site of gathering.
“This is the 21st century library,” Wilson Branch manager John Jessen said in an interview with the News. “It’s a place that is built with the community in mind, with community space in mind, so it’s got a safe, free space.”
Jessen, who has worked in the NHFPL system since 2004 and at the Wilson Branch since 2012, noted the Wilson Branch differs from the downtown branch of the NHFPL because it is a “store-front” library: one that is embedded in the community and intended to draw visitors in to do more than check out books. He said one of his most important jobs is to figure out and develop relationships with customers, adding that trust is necessary to any industry.
Jessen said one of his priorities is building a collection that mirrors the population of Wilson’s clients to the greatest possible degree.
Brogan said the branch’s namesake, Courtland S. Wilson, is particularly fitting, because Wilson was instrumental to the African-American community and beyond during his life of service.
“[Wilson] worked tirelessly to get affordable housing for families and make sure there was equal access and opportunity across all of New Haven’s communities,” Brogan said. “He was especially a spokesman for the Hill.”
She cited Wilson’s winning the Elm Award, New Haven’s highest honor, in 1995 from former Mayor DeStefano as evidence of Wilson’s visible and respected role in the community.
In her speech, Harp said American public libraries have always served as “repositories for information.” Jensen noted that a storefront or community library unites generations of city residents: its true “owners.” Children, he said, grow up checking out picture books, which they are then able to check out for their own children years later. He added that while libraries may serve solely as a source of knowledge in some other countries, the United States has established the public library as a site of leisure and entertainment.
Blake described her own experience sharing the Wilson Branch with her children. She said during her time as a student at the University of Bridgeport, the library served as a critical resource for her.
Now, Blake’s three children visit the Wilson Branch and reap its benefits, she said. The children participated in Ready for the Grade — a Wilson Branch summer program intended to supplement or accelerate children’s reading level — and have made significant academic progress as a result.
Karina Gonzalez, a library technical assistant who has worked at Wilson Branch for nearly one year, said she thought Thursday’s event was a special celebration of the meaning libraries hold for community members.
There are five branches of NHFPL in the Elm City.