A Brief History of the Library
The history of the San Francisco Public Library is in many ways the story of citizen involvement. In creating this Wall of Library Heroes, we focus on both institutional milestones and the work of unpaid citizen volunteers whose vision and perseverance did so much to create and shape this institution.
We have selected items big and small, positive and negative, which we believe reflect the dynamic, complex history of the Library system. Not every detail or every individual who influenced the Library’s history is listed here. This history highlights the work of private citizens and civic leaders who championed its cause.
We also salute the many talented staff whose dedication has enriched the Library system in countless ways over the past 126 years. Their accomplishments, while not specifically chronicled here, are reflected in the outstanding collections and programs the public enjoys today.
A more detailed version of this history is available via our electronic archives, SFPL History, or in the San Francisco History Center.
A group of San Francisco citizens meet to urge the creation of a public library. They also recommend a special tax to fund it. The project is initiated by cable car inventor Andrew Hallidie and State Senator George H. Rogers.
Governor William Irwin signs into law the Rogers Act that authorizes cities to establish a free public library, governed by Trustees, and levy a property tax for a Library Fund to support it.
The Trustees hire the first City Librarian, Albert Hart, who begins work without pay. The first Trustees include Andrew Hallidie and ten other mostly self-made men including a carpenter, a social radical, two lawyers and six businessmen.
The Supervisors vote to support the Library but fail to allocate sufficient funds. Supervisors also are unwilling to provide space in any publicly owned building.
On its own, the Library opens on gifts and credit, renting space in the theatre district on Bush Street. It is an immediate success with the public.
The Supervisors hold up allocation of funds in a struggle over patronage jobs. A judge orders the funds released. The Library budget is $48,000.
The Supervisors reduce Library revenues to $18,000 a year, eliminating the book budget.
The Main Library moves to the Larkin Street wing of the new City Hall, on a site later known as Marshall Square and the eventual site of the current new Main Library.
The Public Library opens its first three branches in the Mission, North Beach and Potrero districts.
The Richmond Branch opens near Golden Gate Park.
James Duval Phelan, wealthy son of one of the original Gold Rush miners, is elected Mayor. He supports the Trustees goal to construct a separate Main Library. He will become a major supporter and patron of the Library.
To help protect the Library from patronage politics, examinations are required for Library jobs.
A new City Charter increases the tax assessment for the Library Fund, setting a minimum appropriation of $75,000. But it will take five years for the Library to actually receive that amount.
The Presidio Branch opens on Fillmore Street.
Mayor Phelan donates money to build a branch South of Market Street and announces plans to build a new Main Library and several new branches. He convinces the Andrew Carnegie Foundation to pledge $750,000.
The San Francisco Labor Council opposes the Carnegie Foundation grant because labor unions regard Carnegie as anti-labor. Supervisors disagree and vote to accept the offer although it will take years until the City is ready to use it.
Vita sine Literis, Mors Est
(Life Without Letters is Death)
---Lucius Seneca, Roman philosopher (c. 4 BC-65 AD)
San Francisco Public Library’s first bookplate
Businessman Andrew J. McCreery donates $45,000 for a branch in Eureka Valley.
Voters approve a bond issue for a new Main Library, but bond problems and a fight over location doom the effort. The Carnegie grant remains in limbo.
Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, leader of the City Beautiful movement, begins to design a master plan for San Francisco, including a Civic Center with a new library building.
Burnham presents his final plan for the city’s redesign.
April 18, 1906. A major earthquake destroys City Hall in seconds. The resulting fire destroys the book collection at the Main Library inside. An eyewitness said after inspecting the damage:
"there was only a thin white ash where a hundred and sixty thousand books had been."
The earthquake and fire destroy the Phelan (South of Market) and North Beach branches. Fifteen thousand items are out on loan at the time; 1,500 eventually come back, the last, a group of periodicals from the 1850s, in 1996.
A temporary Main Library is built at Hayes and Franklin streets.
The City begins to raise funds and consider plans for a new Civic Center.
A new Park Branch opens near the Panhandle.
Supervisors put a charter amendment on the ballot to change the Trustees from a self-perpetuating to an elected board. Voters turn it down. Angry, Supervisors cut the Library budget.
Music teacher Julius Rehn Weber arranges to purchase the 10,000-item sheet music library from the Schirmer Music Library in Boston. Over the next decade Weber helps the Library to develop the music collection into one of the best in the country.
Voters approve a bond measure for a new City Hall and Civic Center.
The Library asks the Carnegie Foundation to fulfill its 1901 pledge. Former Mayor and Library Trustee Edward Robeson Taylor, backed by the Labor Council, opposes accepting the Carnegie money. Library Trustees and Supervisors vote overwhelmingly to accept the funds. Opponents put the question on the ballot but voters approve the Carnegie Foundation funds.
The new Richmond Branch, funded in part by the Carnegie Foundation grant, opens.
Architect George W. Kelham, who designed the Palace Hotel and is chief architect for the Panama-Pacific Exposition, wins a competition to design the city’s first publicly owned, free standing Main Library. The Library will be in a formal Beaux Arts architectural style.
Another architect who did not win the contest charges that the design is very similar to the Detroit Public Library. The Chronicle states “There has been little new in architecture in the last hundred years - that is, monumental architecture.”
Ground is broken for the Main Library by Mayor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph and other officials.
The cornerstone for the Main Library is laid, ten years after the devastating earthquake of 1906.
The Noe Valley Branch opens with funds from the Carnegie Foundation.
By horse and wagon, books are moved into the new Main Library.
February 15, 1917. The Main Library opens. Five hundred people take part in the ceremony, including former Mayor Taylor and Mayor Rolph. The building costs $1.153 million. Trustee Joseph O’Connor refers to the building as “this magnificent chaste temple of learning.”
“MAY THIS STRVCTVRE THRONED ON IMPERISHABLE BOOKS BE MAINTAINED AND CHERISHED FROM GENERATION TO GENERATION FOR THE IMPROVEMENT AND DELIGHT OF MANKIND.”
----Carved in stone, old Main Library, 1917