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
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.