Wall of Library Heroes


Ground is broken for the New Main Library on Marshall Square. Hundreds attend the ceremony, including Mayor Frank Jordan. He uses the same silver shovel Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph held when ground was broken for City Hall.

The Library excavation uncovers part of the old jail and other rubble from City Hall when it collapsed in the 1906 earthquake. Also found is a wedding band, perhaps the last remains of the Yerba Buena Cemetery that once held more than 5,000 bodies and was removed in 1870.

The economy is in a recession and the Library is again facing budget cuts. Keep Libraries Alive! campaigns for more Library funding.

Voters approve Proposition J, an initiative sponsored by community activists to increase the baseline spending for children’s services citywide. Library funding for children’s programs is increased.


Philanthropist Mel Swig dies after a long illness. An endowment is created in his name.

Another difficult budget year forces the Library to trim its book budget and hours.

A major political fight erupts over moving the Victorian era Pioneer Monument that sits at Hyde and Grove streets. The monument originally stood before the City Hall that was demolished by the 1906 earthquake. The Library Foundation pays to move the 800-ton monument to a site between what will become the Asian Art Museum and the New Main.


More proposed budget cuts mean dramatically reducing hours at some branches, further reductions in the book budget and fewer staff.

Mayor Jordan removes six of seven Library Commissioners in a budget dispute.

The Friends, under the leadership of President Diane Filippi launch a ballot initiative for dedicated Library funding to stop the boom and bust cycle of Library budgeting. When campaign funds run low, Mary Louise Stong loans the campaign money to continue the fight. Proposition E passes with over 70% of the vote.
(See Box 1).

The Library establishes public Internet access and a Library Web site that includes an online Community Services Directory of all San Francisco government agencies, community, neighborhood, health, human service and business groups.


Because of Proposition E funds, the book and materials budget triples and system open hours increase 46%. Branch libraries receive thousands of new books and staff begins weeding collections to make room for new materials.

The Main Library closes to the public at the end of the year. For the sixth time in its history, staff prepares to move the enormous Main collection, sorting through nearly a century’s worth of accumulated materials. At the same time, thousands of books from the new affinity groups and the Shanghai Sister City Collection, long housed at the University of San Francisco Lone Mountain campus, are moved to the New Main.

As librarians pull damaged, outdated or duplicate materials from the Main collection, a controversy erupts, foreshadowing rough times ahead. Critics allege that the Library is disposing of large numbers of books instead of moving them to the new building. The Library administration defends the professional standards and judgment exercised by staff in weeding obsolete materials.

A new children’s bookmobile begins service.


Mayor Willie L. Brown, Jr. appoints a new Library Commission, replacing six of seven members.

Weldon Owen publishes A Free Library in this City, a history of the San Francisco Public Library by Peter Booth Wiley. The publisher donates the book as a gift to the Library to commemorate the years of struggle to build the New Main Library.

In a pre-opening celebration, the Library Foundation puts up tents outside the New Main Library for a special Family Day event that draws 12,000 parents and children. Local celebrities, including actor Robin Williams, read their favorite children’s stories.

Construction of the New Main Library is complete. It is one of the first major public buildings in the U.S. to incorporate many green building features. It is also the first building in San Francisco to have talking signs to assist sight-impaired patrons.

Several major pieces of art are incorporated into the building, including part of an old card catalog, a surreal spiral staircase, an electronic wall of authors, a standing mural on Latin American writers and a domed ceiling celebrating gays and lesbians through history. (See electronic archives).

April 18, 1996. The New Main Library opens to the public. It is ninety years to the day since the great earthquake destroyed the old City Hall and the Main Library inside. Thousands crowd Fulton Street and take part in the opening ceremonies. (See electronic archives).

Fourteen thousand people come through the building on its first day. A million visit the building in just over three months. Library staff is overwhelmed but works hard to meet the demand.

A public debate over the New Main erupts, often lively and sometimes shrill, and rages for months. The new seven-level library is dramatically different from the old Main in size, style, technology, open space and organization. The controversies become a national media story. (See Box 2).

For the first year, New Main Library circulation is up 71%, adult programming increases 705% and children’s programming increases 224%. By the end of 1996, attendance levels out at 5,500 a day, seven days a week.

The New Main’s Brooks Walker Patent & Trademark Center becomes one of five California sites designated as a federal patent depository library. It includes complete patents from 1790 to the present.

The New Main’s Daniel E. Koshland San Francisco History Center contains more than 250,000 photographs dating from 1850. City records and photographs provide detail on thousands of homes and buildings.

A new budget controversy develops. City Librarian Ken Dowlin, saying that he has met many of his goals, resigns. Kathy Page, Chief of the Main, steps in as Acting City Librarian.


The Library seeks a closer relationship with the literary community and the Library Foundation begins an annual Library Laureates dinner in the New Main, honoring leading authors from Northern California. Author Amy Tan and U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass co-chair the inaugural event.

The Wallace Stegner Environmental Center holds a series of public debates on environmental issues, underwritten by the Richard & Rhoda Goldman Fund. Actor Robert Redford attends a press conference announcing the program.

Library computers prove so popular with the public that time limits are necessary at peak hours.

Regina Minudri, past President of the American Library Association, is named City Librarian, the first woman to hold the post on a permanent basis.

The New Main Library begins staging a dozen major exhibits a year in its new exhibition spaces as well as many smaller ones from specific collections. One popular exhibit this year is Brave Little Girls, depicting young women heroines in children’s literature.

The American Institute of Architects and the American Library Association present the New Main Library the Award of Excellence for Library Architecture.


Through My Father’s Eyes: Pioneers of the San Francisco Filipino Community exhibit opens at the New Main Library. The photography exhibit, featuring the work of Richard Alvarado, eventually becomes part of a permanent Smithsonian Institute traveling exhibit.


Email reference service begins. The Mission Branch is renovated.

The Friends and the Library Foundation merge into one organization called the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library. Margie O’Driscoll and Chuck Forester are named co-executive directors.


City Librarian Minudri steps down for health reasons and Deputy City Librarian Susan Hildreth becomes Acting Director and later permanent City Librarian.

A bond issue, Proposition A, is placed on the ballot after lobbying by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library. It will build five new branches, upgrade 19 others for earthquake safety, and improve electrical systems and access for people with disabilities. City officials reduce the requested size of the bond by $10 million to $106 million. The measure passes with 74% of the vote.

The new Ocean View Branch opens, replacing a rented facility. Mayor Willie Brown uses budget surplus funds to pay for the building. A fundraising effort, organized by the Friends & Foundation and strongly supported by the neighborhood, provides furniture, fixtures and a new computer-training center.


Nearly five million people visit the San Francisco Public Library system in fiscal year 2000-01, checking out 6.3 million items. Millions more use library reference material or online services. Over 182,000 children attend special programs.


Mary Louise Stong, champion of public libraries for over a half-century, dies.

The Friends & Foundation, under new Executive Director Martin Gomez and Board Chair Deborah Doyle, begin work on a $16 million neighborhood library campaign for furniture, fixtures and other needs not covered by the Proposition A branch renovation bonds.


The new Asian Art Museum opens in the remodeled old Main Library building. The Library purchases property for five new City-owned branch libraries to replace rented facilities. Over the next decade, new branches are planned for construction in Mission Bay, Glen Park, Visitacion Valley, Portola and Ingleside and 19 existing branches will be upgraded.

The Library Commission approves creation of this Wall of Library Heroes to capture the history of the Library system and honor the many community leaders who fought for the values of a great public library. Their stories are a legacy that will inspire others. Future generations may want to add their own stories.

We acknowledge Peter Booth Wiley and his book A Free Library In This City as a key source of material used in this history.
We are grateful for his help.
This project was made possible by a grant from the Friends & Foundation of the San Francisco Public Library, 2003


---Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)
Carved in stone, old Main Library, 1917