California and the Carnegie Program, 1899-1921

In the same year that gold was discovered in California, the nation's first legislation permitting tax support for a free public library was passed in Massachusetts. Two centuries of New England library development was replicated in California over a period of about twenty-five years, beginning with the establishment of reading rooms and shared libraries in many of the new communities of the state.

The first was in Monterey in 1849. In the mining towns, new arrivals felt the need for news and a supply of reading material, symbols of home. Other early libraries were in San Francisco and towns surrounding the Bay, the river towns of Sacramento, Marysville and Stockton, and Santa Barbara and San Diego. Individuals, women's clubs, temperance groups, and clubs and lodges shared books with members, and sometimes with the public for a subscription fee. Typically the library was located in temporary quarters in an office or store. The perennial problem was to find permanent housing for the books.

In 1878 California passed the Rogers Act, similar to the Boston legislation, which enabled incorporated cities and towns to levy a tax which could be used to maintain free public libraries and reading rooms and to provide for their housing. The Act also encouraged groups with libraries to turn them over to the city by providing that the group could name representatives to the library governing board.

While the Rogers Act marked the beginning of widespread municipal support of libraries in California, most cities still could provide only rent or free space and libraries continued to occupy temporary and inadequate quarters. The Carnegie philanthropy addressed this problem by offering already established libraries a building in which to house their collections. Many communities that lacked libraries were stimulated by the expectation of a building to start a library. Also, a number of other philanthropists followed Carnegie's example and funded library buildings in their communities.

The first Carnegie grants in California were substantial. In July 1899 San Diego was offered $50,000 which was soon increased to $60,000. Oakland was granted $50,000 in August. Alameda received $10,000 in September but when the community was unsuccessful in raising sufficient extra funds Carnegie provided $25,000 more. There were no California grants in 1900, but six California libraries were funded in 1901. Thereafter in every year until 1917 at least one California community learned that its request for a Carnegie library had been approved.

Meanwhile, Carnegie had given major responsibility to his personal secretary, James Bertram, under whom the program became more rigorous and formal. Initial grants were rarely increased. Of the fourteen libraries funded before 1903, only one received $10,000 and the average allocation for the other thirteen was $32,000. Beginning in 1903, the sum of $10,000 appears more frequently and by the end of the program fifty-six libraries had been granted that amount, with funding for the remaining libraries divided approximately equally above and below $10,000.

The majority of the library grants in California were to small cities; in the larger cities, branch libraries were emphasized, a reflection of Carnegie's philosophy to "place within its reach the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise." Some years after the grant for the main libraries in Oakland, Santa Cruz, and Santa Monica, additional grants were given for branches. Los Angeles received $190,000 for six branches and San Francisco received $750,000, half for a central library and half for branches.

1909 legislation, revised in 1911, permitted the formation of a library district within an existing high school district; at about the same time State Librarian James Gillis revitalized the county library system. Together these actions spurred the development of branch and rural libraries which received a substantial proportion of later Carnegie funding.

Just before World War I the Carnegie Corporation had decided to shift its emphasis to library service, and the war then put a halt to construction of some libraries already funded. California's last Carnegie libraries, completed in 1921 with funds that had been promised prior to the war, were county branch libraries in Orosi, Santa Cruz, Patterson, and Riverbank. They brought the total of Carnegie funded free public libraries in California to 142, in 121 geologically diverse California communities ranging from Alturas, Yreka, Eureka and Ferndale in the north, to San Diego and Calexico at the Mexican border. Carnegie funded public libraries were built in thirty-eight of the state's fifty counties. In addition, Carnegie provided funds for two academic libraries, at Pomona College and Mills College.

In just twenty years between 1899 and 1921 the free public library in its own building had become an established institution. By providing a library building and energizing a constituency to generate taxes and other funds for its support, Carnegie succeeded in creating a high level of popular and civic commitment to free public libraries that persists after almost a century.


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