Wall of Library Heroes - 10/16/03 DRAFT

Proposition A, a $106 million bond to build five new branches, upgrade 19 others for earthquake safety, electrical code upgrades, and access for people with disabilities is placed on the ballot after lobbying by the Friends & Foundation. However the amount approved by city officials is $10 million less than what is estimated as necessary. The ballot measure passes with 74% of the vote.

The new Ocean View Branch opens, replacing a rented facility. It includes a computer-training center, a high priority for the neighborhood.

Friends & Foundation Board member Carlota del Portillo exhorts Library supporters to become "Keepers of the Dream" that brought the institution to where it is today, particularly the dreams and promises represented by the Affinity Group campaigns.


New Main to New Millennium: Gifts and Acquisitions 1996-2001 exhibition features new archival and rare materials obtained by the Library since the New Main opened. It is one of ten exhibits at the Main this year.

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.

In four years the Library has four Chief Librarians, major increases in public usage, new systems for staff to learn, new ways to work, major controversies in the media and yet the system keeps going, a tribute to the skill and determination of staff.

Dale Carlson, a former Library Commissioner, steps down as President of the Friends and Foundation. He played a major role in numerous ballot measures, fundraising and policy debates. The California Library Association honors him for 13 years of leadership.


Mary Louise Stong, a 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 $16 million campaign to supplement the Prop A branch renovation bond because new furniture, fixtures and other needs are not covered by the bond.

The Library acquires a building on 9th Street to relocate the Technical Services Department that performs major book processing, repair and important back office functions now in the New Main.

The Library Commission approves a new branch in Mission Bay. When it opens it will bring to 27 the number of neighborhood branches.

The Main has ten new exhibits this year, drawing 70,000 visitors, including two on civil rights. Speak Truth to Power features portraits of people of all ethnicities and nationalities who have spoken up as human rights defenders. Long Walk to Freedom is a project of students at George Washington High School focusing on 12 civil rights activists of the 1960s.

One of the founders of the African American Center, Dr. Arthur H. Coleman, dies. A lawyer and Hunters Point physician for over 50 years, he was also a charter member of the Library Foundation. An endowment for the Center is created in his honor.


The new Asian Art Museum opens in the old Main Library.

The Library purchases property for five new City-owned branch libraries, replacing rented facilities. Over the next decade, new branches will be constructed in Mission Bay, Glen Park, Visitacion Valley, Portola and Ingleside and 19 existing branches will be upgraded. Design work for an expanded Richmond Branch is approved.

The Library Commission approves creation of this Wall of Library Heroes to capture the history of this institution and honor the many leaders over more than a century who rose from the community and fought for the values of a great public library. Their stories are a legacy that will inspire others.

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

Box 1(Special Sidebar/Boxed area)

Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, 1961-62

Founding members of the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library include: President: Alan K. Browne
Vice Presidents: General Edwin L. Johnson, David Magee, Jack Pollatsek and Marjorie Stern
Treasurer: William Mackey
Secretary: Mary Louise Stong
Board Members: John Bransten, Mortimer and Janet Fleishhacker, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. R. Gwin Follis, Dr. and Mrs. Frank Gerbode, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Haas, Lucille Mohr, Judith Pollatsek, Mr. and Mrs. Albert Schwabacher Jr., Mrs. Nion Tucker, George and Sally Williams, Mrs. Dean Witter, and Mr. and Mrs. J.D. Zellerbach.

Over the next year, the Friends board membership grows to include: Mildred Bell, Mrs. Donald Biggs, William Brinton, Mrs. Francis Carroll, William Coblentz, Hunt Conrad, Mrs. Richard Dakin, Mrs. Ralph Doscher, Robert Drewes, Dr. Frank Fenton, E.H. Gauer, Carlton B. Goodlett, M.D., George Johns, Gustav Knecht, Jr., Lewis Lengfield, Mrs. Robert MacDuff, Mrs. Alfred McLaughlin, Robert Marcus, William Monihan, Eugene M. Price, Alvin Rockwell and Nat Schmulowitz.

Friends Book Sale, 1964

Leadership for the first book sale include Hugh Cook, Ann Grace, Hilde Kolb, Erma Kuta, Joan Leaf, Elaine Mundy, Richard Reinhardt, Ken Train and Helen Louise Weinstein.

Main Bond Campaign, 1988

The Friends start organizing for the anticipated Library bond in 1987. Marilyn Smulyan is hired to build grassroots support. Sally Brunn of Keep Libraries Alive! lobbies the Legislature for a state library bond measure and finds Senator Milton Marks and others supportive. Volunteers are recruited to build public support, including community leaders Aileen Hernandez and Joanne Foo, attorney Fred Rodriguez and labor leader Steve Neuberger of SEIU Local 790. Once approved for the ballot, a formal bond campaign is formed. Sherry Agnos, wife of the new Mayor, and School Superintendent Ramon Cortines are honorary co-chairs. Dick Pabich runs the campaign with leadership from attorney James W. Haas, consultants Marilyn Smulyan and Robert Barnes and help from a Franciscan brother and Tenderloin neighborhood activist, Kelly Cullen. Hundreds of others assist the campaign effort.

Designing & Building the New Main

James Ingo Freed and Cathy Simon lead the design team with Project Manager Anthony Bernheim. Other members in leadership roles include City Librarian Ken Dowlin, Library Project Director Kathy Page and Library Commission President Steve Coulter. San Francisco's Chief Administrative Officer Rudy Nothenberg leads the building efforts for the City with the help of project managers Russ Abel and later Jim Cheng. The General Contractor is Huber Hunt Nichols. Because the Library will be on the Civic Center Plaza, the Arts Commission oversees important design elements including the exterior of the building and its public art.

Council of Neighborhood Libraries, 1988

The original Council include the following: Jean Amos, Ann Anderson, Betsey Bannerman, Janet Berenson, Connie Blanding, Miriam Blaustein, Mary Jo Brazil, Sally Brunn, Bill Carpenter, Sue Cauthen, Angela Chen, Margaret Coughlin, Marcia DeHart, Mirian Gray, Andrew Grimstad, Mario Guzman, Virginia Hanley, Anna Ruth Kipping, Vernon Kipping, Carolyn Kleymeyer, Maylian Lee, Lucretia Levinger, DeEtte Loubell, Carol O'Toole, William Park, Jean Parrott, Susan Poole, Rebecca Radner, Martin Ravn, Marilyn Sachs, Sark, William Schaefer, Pat Speulda, Ruth Spolum, Carol Steiman, Landis Whistler, Naomi Williams, Colleen Wong, Amy Tan, Chune Lee, Harriet Fielding, Stephen Pantos, Judy Baston, Carolene Marks, Idelle Rubino, Eleain Fuchs, Richard Rafael, Jeanne Sommer, Morris Sachs, Quincy Norris, Susan Sobel-Feldman and Doris Sanchez.
Other members became active in the early 1990s: Judy Baston, Karen Bevelander, Karen Crommie, Dorothy Danielson, Ella Driscoll, Ellen Egbert, Tiffany Farr, Harriet Fielding, Barbara Gersh, Julie Kavanaugh, Caroline Kleymeyer, Marty Koshuba, Miriam Pavis, Larry Ware and Dr. Rose Resnick. Two Council members, Carol Steiman and Karen Crommie, later serve as Library Commissioners.

Prop E Campaign for Library Funding, 1994

The Friends of the Library launch a successful initiative to help stabilize Library funding and face significant opposition in their campaign. Leadership members include Friends President Diane Filippi, Mary Louise Stong, Carol Steiman, Dale Carlson, City Librarian Ken Dowlin, campaign managers John Whitehurst and Robert Barnes, pollster David Binder, David Spero and others. Steiman will later become a Library Commissioner.

Box 2(Special Sidebar/Boxed area)

Art in the New Main

The New Main Library contains a variety of major art pieces, some obtained through the City program for new buildings and others donated by individuals.

Three major pieces are incorporated into the building as part of a city program for art in new buildings.

  • Artists Ann Hamilton and Ann Chamberlain take cards from a duplicate staff card catalogue, invite patrons to write their observations or favorite quotes on the cards, and then embed them on three walls in the building.

  • Artist Nayland Blake creates a 21st Century high tech list of California authors on a five-story wall behind the grand staircase. Called Constellation, it has the names etched in mirror and then reflected by a fiber optic light cable.

  • Between the fifth and sixth floors of the suspended glass reading room that juts into the Main atrium is a conical and surreal spiral staircase created by sculptor Alice Aycock. Hanging in a great open space nearby is Cyclone Fragment, a ghost projection of the spiral stairs.

Other major pieces:
As a donation for the opening of the New Main, muralists Charlie Brown and Mark Evans painted the domed ceiling of the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center. The mural is entitled "Into the Light," featuring prominent gays and lesbians through history.
Guatemalan artist Emanuel Paniagua created a freestanding mural entitled "Perhaps Better Voices (Talvez Mejores Voces.)." It is commissioned by School Board member Carlota del Portillo and donated to the Library for the Latino/Hispanic Room in 1997. It is a visual representation of the history of Latin American writers including characters from the literature of the pre-Hispanic Maya, the poetry of a 17th Century Mexican nun, and the epic verse of Argentina's free-wheeling gauchos. The "Double L Excentric Gyratory" mobile sculpture by artist George Rickey is installed outside the New Main in 1997. Two 18-foot steel arms shaped like Ls pivot, independent of each other, in response to air currents. It is a gift to the city from art patron Carl Djerassi.

Box 3(Special Sidebar/Boxed area)

New Main Opens, April 18, 1996

  • In a clear and soaring voice, Sara Von Davenport, a 14-year-old from Hunters Point, sings a cappella "America the Beautiful."

  • An honor guard of construction workers who built the Library march on stage in hard hats and receive an ovation.

  • Politicians, corporate executives, philanthropists, librarians and Keepers of the Dream speak to the crowd about the struggle to create the New Main.

  • Surrounded by children from the Tenderloin, a storyteller, J. Peter Callendar, dramatically recounts the history of the Library.

  • The children sing "Happy Birthday" on the first day of public life for the New Main.

  • Beach Blanket Babylon's Val Diamond, wearing a giant hat with the New Main on top, sings "San Francisco."

  • The San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, conducted by Alasdair Neale, plays Aaron Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man."

  • A plane circles high overhead and a man jumps out, parasailing onto Civic Center. He rushes to Mayor Brown, Charlotte Swig and others, and hands them a symbolic key.

  • Two guards in Beefeater uniforms open the doors of the New Main.

  • From inside the Library emerges a procession of characters from the book collections---the Three Musketeers, Sir Francis Drake, Mark Twain, Cinderella, Snow White, Marie Antoinette, Abraham Lincoln and a hundred others.

  • The crowd rushes inside.

  • Children hurry up and down stairs, checking out the bridges, books and the Children's Electronic Discovery Center.

  • The Affinity Centers are crowded.

  • Every computer is in use. Every chair is filled.

  • People browse the book stacks and examine the public art.

  • Crowds gather in the atrium. Many people are hugging with tears in their eyes.

  • With Mig Mayer nearby, Marjorie Stern and Mary Louise Stong approach the counter to check out the first books. But Mrs. Stern has forgotten her Library card. Staff looks up her card number. A dream is realized.

Box 4(Special Sidebar/Boxed area)

Debate on the New Main

The dramatic differences between the old and New Main libraries thrill many but startle others. San Francisco becomes the focus of a national debate on books, technology and the role of libraries in the 21st Century.

  • Supporters of the New Main say the building is inspiring, a great civic presence that completes the 1917 Civic Center master plan, succeeded against the odds and is now more diverse in its collections and services, better reflecting the populations it serves.

  • Critics of the building say it is too modern, has too many computers, is too open and does not have enough space for books. A novelist announces that he has come to save the card catalog, claims the weeding of books was "a hate crime against the past" and leads what will become a high profile national crusade.

  • Some demand that librarians never remove anything from the collections. Others argue that collections need to be managed to keep them relevant.

  • The success of the private fundraising, seen as astonishing by many who believed it could never be achieved, is viewed by others as a kind of private takeover of a public service. Supporters say private donors bring opportunities for even greater public service as well as practical necessities such as chairs and tables.

  • Meanwhile, libraries around the country seek to emulate the San Francisco fundraising model.


The New Main Becomes a Major Media Story


  • "It will grow on us," writes the U.S. Poet Laureate about the outside of the building, adding that "inside...is a marvel, so deeply delicious you forget your previous ideas of what a library is."

  • "An ugly modern shopping mall" fumes a critic of the building in a newspaper article.

  • A "Mall for the Mind" writes Newsweek.

  • "A Wonderment to Discover" for people with disabilities writes the World Institute on Disabilities.

  • "The curves and twists of stairs around the rotunda are enough to make a person dizzy," rages one letter in the Examiner.

  • "A dynamic, light-filled space as inviting as it is joyous" writes Art in America. .

  • "A Trojan horse concealing an invasion force of private interests,"  writes a critic.

  • "Room for Imagination in a Temple of Reason" headlines the New York Times architectural review.

The Mayor calls for a neutral third party audit to study some of the issues and cool tempers. An Examiner editorial gives this advice to all sides in this sometime shrill debate: "Shush!"

Box 5 (Special Sidebar/Boxed area)

Library Foundation & the Main Campaign, 1987-96

The initial founding members of the Foundation include: Ben Dial, James Edgar (Board President), Leslie Luttgens, Michael Mellor, Caryl and Peter Mezey, Ellen Newman, Martin Paley, Marjorie Stern (Board Founding Chair), Olive Waugh and Ann Witter. As work begins, membership expands to include: Mayor Art Agnos, Dale Carlson, Hector Chinchilla, Renee and Arthur Coleman, Steve Coulter, Carlota del Portillo, Ken Dowlin, Chuck Forester, Michael Garland, Ellen Huppert and Tatwina Lee.

Campaign co-chairs: Mel and Charlote Swig
Honorary co-chairs: Ann G. Getty and John W. Gardner
Executive Director: Martin Paley

Affinity Group Campaign, 1991-94

Numerous community leaders stepped forward to take part and lead the effort to develop and help fund special collections of significant interest. Donor plaques are located inside the Library. Leadership of the Affinity Campaign includes:

African American Group

Co-chairs: Dr. Arthur Coleman and Renee Dorsey Coleman
Committee: Dr. Rena Merritt Bancroft, Jo-Ann Beverly, Barbra Boston, Kermit Boston, Geri Brown, Marguerite Browne, Diane M. Douchette, Frankie Gillette, Maxwell Gillette, Marion Greene, Barbara Heineback, Burl A. Toler, Doris M. Ward, Ph.D.

Children's Group

Honorary Co-Chairs: Doris Fisher and Charlotte Mailliard Swig
Kid's Day Co-Chairs: Becky Draper, Nancy Field, Katie Hall, Laura Kline, Kathy Nyrop, Millicent Powers and Wally Ward.
Committee: Linda Ach, Andi Arrick, Carla Baird, Ann Baldocchi, Diane Beaudet, Colurney Benoist, Bea Bowles, Nancy Dickson, Betsy Dixon, Mary Edwards, Therica Elliott, Lisa Feldman, Laura Fisher, Elizabeth "Randi" Fisher, Sako Fisher, Viviane Fort-Brescia, Sally Gerstein, Heather Gevertz, Katy Glass, Lisa Goldman, Maureen Halperin, John Handford, Roberta Holdlen, Leslie Hume, Colleen Kieselhorst, Kevin King, Marie Kirk, Sheila Larsen, Dawn Lehmann, Belinda Levensohn, Marilyn MacGregor, Jeannie Mitchell, Elaine Magnin, Lisa Moloney, Ira McEvoy, Betsy Nakamura, Carrie Ohly-Cusak, Caroline Orrick, Julie Parish, Paul Cince Pringle, Lisa Pritzker, Bill Rieser, Mary Ross, Jenny Schweich, Ellie Seddon, Maur Tavernetti, Kat Taylor, Sylvie Wada, Brenda Yee, Margaret Youngblood. Eventually the Children's Center will be named in honor of the Don and Doris Fisher family, leading philanthropists and civic leaders.

Chinese American Group

Honorary Co-Chairs: Virginia C. Gee and Tom Hsieh
Co-Chairs: Tatwina Chinn Lee and Rosalyn Koo
Committee: Joan Chin, Anthony Tse, Patricia Chang, Lonnie K. Chin, Vyolet Chu, JoAnn Foo, Yvonne Go, Monique Go, Theresa M. Lee, Dr. Rolland C. Lowe, George Ong, George E. Sycip, Dennis Wong and Robert B. Wong.

Friends of the Chinatown Branch

Co-Chairs: Thomas Ng and Reverend Harry Chuck
Vice Chairs: Helen Chin and Rosalyn Koo
Committee: Dr. Thomas H. Gee, JoAnne Low, Anni Chung, Dennis Wong, Gwendolyn Woo, Norman Yee, Stan Yee and Matilda Young.

Environmental Group

Co-Chairs: Larry Blake and Jerry Tone
Committee: Beth Barker, Arden Bucklin, Virginia Coe, Mike Garland, Chris Desser, Catherine Fox, Annette Gellert, Harold Gillliam, Dian Greueneich, Jennifer Hernandez, Mike Herz, Mary Wallace Houghteling, Lauren Klein, Claire Griffin Lyddon, Wende Williams Micco, Claire Nelson, Will Parish, Beth Skelton, Suzane Schutte, Mary Stegner, Marjorie Stern, Georgiana Stevens, Elissa Van Deursen, Kirby Walker and Susan Watkins. Eventually the Center will be named in honor of the late Wallace Stegner, a California author and Pulitzer Prize winner.

Filipino American Group

Chair: Tony Gualberto
Committee: Poly Arzaga, Cip Ayalin, Jun Caba, Billy Camota, Flor Camota, Virgie Gulaberto, Sharon Jones, Cris Kabasares, Ernie Llorente, Severo Lozano, Dennis Normandy, Sofia Prudenciado and Lou Raymundo.

Gay & Lesbian Group

Co-Chairs: Diane Benjamin and Chuck Forester
Committee: The initial organizing and planning committee includes women's publisher Sherry Thomas, civic leaders Alvin H. Baum, Jr., Steve Coulter, Chuck Forester, Gary Gielow, Marya Grams, James C. Hormel, Dorrwin Buck Jones, and Robert W. Sass. It later expands to include: Diane Cane, Anne Casscells, Nancy Corporon, Mary Anne Courtney, Mario Diaz, Rosalinda del Moral, Leslie Ewing, Cynthia Gair, Nancy Gonchar, Dewey Green, Roma Guy, James W. Haas, Amma Hawks, Lance Henderson, Lauren Hewitt, Patricia Holt, Mark Leno, Penney Magrane, Robert Oakes, Robert Reinhard, Vince A. Sales, Joseph B.Schubert, Don Spradlin, John Vasconcellos, Steve Vezeris and Jan Zivic. Eventually the Center is named in honor of James C. Hormel, a leading philanthropist, civic leader and, a few years later, the first openly gay man in U.S. history to be appointed as a U.S. Ambassador. Thomas and Forester will later become Executive Directors of the Library Foundation.

Latino/Hispanic Group

Co-Chairs: Carlota del Portillo and Fred A. Rodriguez
Committee: Gladys Aquino, Elena Asturias, Honorable Carlos T. Bea, Isabel Campoy, Ricardo D. Carmona, Ray del Portillo, Jaime Diaz, Rosemarie Fernandez-Ruel, Rose Guilbault, Nyla Gemple, Mary Hernandez, Sonia Melara, Gloria Ramos, Kenneth Romines, Manuel Rosales and Veronica Sanchez. The Latino/Hispanic group asks that a community meeting room, a place to bring people together, be named for their community.

Public Comments and Changes

This is an updated version of the proposed Wall of Library Heroes first formally introduced at the Library Commission hearing on 9/18/03 and heard a second time 10/2/03. That version was dated 9/18/03. This version reflects recommended changes from the public and staff and carries the date of the next Commission hearing when it will be heard again, 10/16/03.

Any additional comments will be factored into a final version to be voted on at the hearing on 11/6/03.

Changes deal primarily with non-English language collections and the formation of the Neighborhood Council of Libraries. Changes are indicated in bold face and can be found in Box 1 toward the end of the document, and under the years 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1970, 1981, 1988, and 1989. The document has also been reorganized slightly with all boxed sections now at the end of the document. The four boxes will be placed at the bottom of the last four plaques with copy running above, much like you might see sidebars in a magazine.

One comment made is that the material seems long for plaques. It is hoped that the use of the boxes will help. There will be six plaques, 3’X3’, each carrying four columns. Also, it is possible that additional editing may be required when the graphic artist formats the material for transfer to the glass plaques.

In addition to the plaques, it is intended that the full version will appear on the Library web site and perhaps in a future brochure on SFPL history.

Suggested changes and comments can be directed to:

Library Commission Secretary Mike Housh
San Francisco Public Library
100 Larkin Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

You can also email mhoush@sfpl.org or bring suggestions to the upcoming Commission hearing.

Keepers of the Dream

Our free public library is a cultural institution unlike any other.

Inside is the history of the world, our greatest literature, ideas to strengthen our democracy, insights into science and business. It is a house of books and an electronic discovery center. You can travel to the stars or inside an atom, sail on a pirate ship or take any journey of the imagination. It is a magical place for children, a workroom for writers, a treasure chest for scholars. It is an educational and cultural resource. It reflects and respects our social diversity. It is a champion of intellectual freedom. It is this and more.

Yet the library is fragile, depending on elected officials who care, the good will of voters, the talent of its staff and citizens who understand its purpose and champion its cause.

The San Francisco Public Library struggled from the beginning, its history a mixture of inspired leadership and long periods of civic disinterest.

In the late 1950s, after years of decline, the San Francisco Public Library found its modern day angels. Imbued with civic spirit, a group of citizens demanded change. A great city, they argued, needed a great public library system. They dreamed big and worked tirelessly to create something tangible and important for future generations. Their struggle lasted 40 years. Charming or feisty, depending on the situation, often audacious, sometimes controversial, they made all the difference.

Many shared the dream and worked to achieve it. We honor them and thank the people of San Francisco for their faith and support. We also offer special recognition to three for extraordinary leadership, vision, and tenacity, inspiring others to join the cause. This trio led the effort through the decades, never losing hope, never accepting defeat, never forgetting the dream: Marjorie G. Stern, Mary Louise Stong, Margaret ˜Mig’ Mayer

This building is hereby dedicated to their civic spirit, their selfless leadership, their devotion to the ideals of a public library, and to the passion that made them keepers of the dream.

We are grateful.

Willie L. Brown, Jr., Mayor

SFPL Library Commissioners
Charles A. Higueras, President Steven A. Coulter
Carol Steiman, Vice President Fran A. Streets
Helen Marte Bautista Deborah Strobin
Lonnie K. Chin Commissioners
Susan Hildreth, City Librarian  
April 4, 2003  



Wall of Library Heroes



In creating this Wall of Library Heroes, the Library Commission seeks to capture many of the stories that shaped this cultural icon and the names of individuals who stepped forward offering leadership, perseverance and hope. We have selected items, big and small, positive and negative, which we believe reflect the dynamic, complex nature and history of the Library system and the city it serves.

Our focus is on unpaid citizen volunteers and champions. There have also been many heroes on staff and their fine work is honored in other programs. We recognize that telling history can be a perilous task. We acknowledge that not every detail or every individual who did important work is listed here. Future generations may inscribe on these walls other stories and the names of new heroes, Keepers of the Dream, who keep alive the promise of a “free public library in this city.”

History of the San Francisco Public Library

San Francisco was a literate place by boomtown standards. Although wild and often lawless following the discovery of gold in1848, some observers said the City had more newspapers in more languages than London and more college graduates than any other city in the country. While some claimed the City put Gomorrah to shame, others pointed out that it had a large number of bookstores, attracted writers such as Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain and Bret Harte and boasted major book publishers and collectors such as Hubert Howe Bancroft.

In 1852 you could visit several private libraries, including one in the What Cheer House, a temperance hotel. The Mercantile Association formed the city’s first subscription library in 1853; dues were $1 a month. Also in 1853 there are reports of a group of black merchants opening the Athenaeum Library Company. The Mechanics’ Institute library opened in 1854 and still exists.

The late 1870s were troubled times for San Francisco. There was widespread unemployment, labor unrest, anti-Chinese agitation and resentment toward civic corruption and the wealthy, powerful men who dominated politics. Into this atmosphere the San Francisco Public Library was born.


Residents of San Francisco hold a meeting at Dashaway Hall on Post Street to create a funding mechanism for a free public library. The project is initiated by cable car inventor Andrew Hallidie and State Senator George H. Rogers. Hallidie is a former President of the Mechanics’ Institute and frustrated in his attempts to turn that library into a privately endowed public institution. He hopes a free public library can draw some restless young men from the bars and fleshpots of the city’s more notorious neighborhoods. A resolution passed by the group states:

“Whereas, We, the citizens of San Francisco, here assembled, believe that the dissemination of education among people is the only safeguard to republican liberty and government, and believing the establishment of public libraries to be the best and cheapest means of educating the people, therefore; Resolved, That we do most heartily approve of the project about to be inaugurated for the establishment of a free library in this city and do pledge to the same our hearty and united support.”


Governor William Irwin signs into law the Rogers Act, allowing any city to levy a property tax to raise Library funds and create a Board of Library Trustees to oversee it. In order to keep the Library free from the general corruption of City politics, the Board of Trustees is self-perpetuating rather than being appointed by the mayor.


The first City Librarian, Albert Hart, is hired.

The first Board of Trustees includes Andrew Hallidie and ten other mostly self-made men including a carpenter, a social activist, a couple of lawyers and six businessmen.

The Board of Supervisors votes to support the Library but fails to allocate sufficient funds. The Board also is 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. Women have their own section.


Librarian Hart resigns due to stress over the lack of funds. He is replaced by Charles Robinson who quits after seven months claiming that he is overworked.

Supervisors hold up allocation of funds in a struggle over patronage jobs. A judge orders the funds released.

The next City Librarian, Frederic Beecher Perkins, is a cousin of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Perkins provides Library pages with slippers so they will not make noise going up ladders to retrieve books. He also removes “dirty books” from the collection and warns “a library is not a haunt for loafers and criminals.”

The annual library budget is now $48,000.


Supervisors reduce Library revenues to $18,000 a year, eliminating the book budget. Librarian Perkins declares that opponents are out to destroy the Library if they cannot control it.


Perkins, tired of the budget fights, resigns amidst a public squabble over ejecting an unruly youth from the Library. Poet John Vance Cheney is named as his replacement. Cheney is working as a cashier in the Post Office when offered the job as Chief Librarian.


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.


Richmond Branch opens near Golden Gate Park.


The Main Library relocates within City Hall to the third floor of the McAllister Street wing.


The Library annual report notes that the 38 employees of the Library make about $48.95 per month, less than other city workers.


Travel books and other literature are provided on special women’s tables to help “take from them the desire for trashy literature.”

George T. Clark is appointed City Librarian and begins expanding the collection. Circulation doubles in five years.


James Duval Phelan, wealthy son of one of the original 49ers, is elected Mayor with a goal of reforming city politics and introducing European style urban planning. He supports construction of a separate Main Library, a goal of the Library Trustees. 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.

Presidio Branch opens on Fillmore Street.

Ten thousand books, about one tenth of the collection, are placed in open stacks.


Mayor Phelan donates $16,000 to build a branch South of Market. It includes a library for the blind. He also gives money for libraries in the city’s almshouses and to two high schools.

Phelan announces plans to build a new Main Library and several new branches and convinces the Andrew Carnegie Foundation to pledge $750,000.

The San Francisco Labor Council opposes the Carnegie donation arguing that the philanthropist was anti-labor and the offer was a “presumptuous claim of a wealthy nonresident to dictate our municipal policy in the assumed name of philanthropy.” Supervisors disagree and vote to accept the offer although it will take years until the City is ready to use it for a new Main Library.


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 offer 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.

A major earthquake destroys City Hall in seconds and a fire destroys the book collection at the Main Library. Said an eyewitness inspecting the damage: “There was only a thin white ash where a hundred and sixty thousand books had been.” The Phelan (South of Market) and North Beach branches are destroyed, the McCreery (Eureka Valley) Branch is severely damaged and most Library employees are left homeless.

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.

George Clark resigns as City Librarian and is replaced by William R. Watson, the first person trained as a professional librarian to head the system.


A new Park Branch opens near the Panhandle.

The City begins to raise funds and consider plans for a new Civic Center.


Supervisors put a charter amendment on the ballot to change the Library Board of Trustees from a self-perpetuating to an elected board. Voters turn it down. Angry, the Board of Supervisors cuts the Library budget.


Music teacher Julius Rehn Weber arranges for the purchase of the 10,000-item music library from the Schirmer Music Library in Boston. Over the next decade he helps the Library develop the collection to become one of the best in the country.


A ballot measure approves bond money for a new City Hall and Civic Center.

The Library asks the Carnegie Foundation to fulfill its 1901 funding pledge. Former Mayor and Library Trustee Edward Taylor opposes use of the Carnegie money and is backed by the Labor Council. Library Trustees and Supervisors vote overwhelmingly to accept the funds. Opponents put the question on the ballot but voters approve the Carnegie funds.

Robert Rea becomes City Librarian where he has worked since he was 13 years old.


The temporary Main Library reaches capacity.

A contest is held for the design of the new Main Library. Architect George W. Kelham, who designed the Palace Hotel and is chief architect for the Panama-Pacific Exposition, is selected. It will be built in a formal Beaux Arts style.

Another architect who did not win the contest sues, charging that the design is similar to the design of the Detroit Public Library. But the case is dismissed. The San Francisco Chronicle laments, “There has been little new in architecture in the last hundred years - that is, monumental architecture.”

Carnegie Foundation funds are earmarked for the construction of five permanent branch buildings.

The new Richmond Branch opens with funds from Carnegie.


Ground is broken for the new Main Library. Mayor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph and other officials take part in the ceremony.


The cornerstone for the Main Library is laid, ten years after the devastating earthquake of 1906. A silver trowel commemorating the event goes into the San Francisco Library’s history collection.

Noe Valley Branch opens through funds from the Carnegie Foundation.


By horse and wagon, books are moved into the new Main Library.

The Main Library opens on February 15, 1917. Five hundred people take part in the ceremony. The building cost is $1.153 million. Library Trustee and Board of Education President Joseph O’Connor refers to the building as “this magnificent chaste temple of learning.”


Sunset and Golden Gate Valley branches open with funds from the Carnegie Foundation.


At the instigation of Library Trustee William Young, the Main Library begins to acquire rare books. The Library also starts collecting works from San Francisco’s fine printers and binders who are gaining international stature.


Carnegie Foundation funds build two new buildings: North Beach Branch on Powell Street and Presidio Branch on Sacramento Street.

A new Eureka Valley Branch opens, replacing the McCreery Branch that was damaged in the 1906 earthquake.

The Library budget is $185,000 a year. Librarians are paid $85 to $95 a month, less than other City employees.


Excelsior and Ingleside branches open.


A report by the San Francisco Center indicates that Library children’s services are under-funded and that the Library was “the one large public library in the country which does not appreciate the value of assistants who are graduates of library schools.”


Glen Park and Bayview branches open.

The Library names the rare book and fine printing collection as a memorial to Max J. Kuhl, a rare book collector and the attorney for the Panama-Pacific Exhibition of 1915. Several rare book enthusiasts help build the collection including Albert Bender who donates a Kelmscott Chaucer, a Dove’s Press Bible and pages from the first and second folio Ashendene Spenser.


Portola and Ocean View branches open.

Library Trustees President James Phelan commissions an outside study of the Library. The report states that the collection is excellent considering its near destruction in the 1906 earthquake and fire, but the Library is under-funded, and staff is largely untrained and seriously underpaid. Igniting a controversy, the study suggests replacing City Librarian Robert Rea with someone trained in library science. The League of Women Voters does its own survey and defends Rea. He retires in 1945.


The Business Branch opens in the financial district.

With the Great Depression, Library funding declines but the number of people using the Library skyrockets.


The Police Department is allowed to use the basement of the Main Library for target practice.

A new City Charter turns the Library Board of Trustees into a Commission appointed by the Mayor.


Anza Branch opens.


As poor economic times continue, Mayor Angelo Rossi appoints a Citizens Advisory Committee that recommends major cuts in the Library budget. The book budget is cut significantly.


Visitacion Valley Branch opens.

Mayor Rossi seeks federal help to build new branches on permanent city-owned sites. The City receives $90,000.


Parkside, West Portal and Bernal branches open, all in rental sites.


West Portal Branch opens.


Library staff, almost entirely women, campaigns successfully for civil service protection.

A new Bernal Branch opens in a city owned site.

Mayor Rossi and the Library Commission approve an ambitious plan to expand branches and establish a branch in every public school but it is never implemented.

Local businessman Alfred Furhman dies and bequeaths a portion of his estate to the Library for the purchase of books on economics and political subjects. The gift provides thousands of books and other materials through the present.


The Main Library reaches capacity.

The City seeks federal Works Progress Administration funds to build an addition to the Main Library but is unsuccessful.

Library card holding and circulation began a slow decline that will continue for several years.

Mayor Roger Lapham seeks federal funds for construction of ten branches but is turned down.


Mayor Lapham, before he appoints trial lawyer Nat Schmulowitz to the Library Commission, asks for his assessment on what to do with the Library. Schmulowitz gives a negative report borrowing metaphors from Jonathan Swift: there is a group on the Commission that treats books as sarcophagi for knowledge, the Library as a cemetery, the Librarian as the undertaker and the Commission and staff as honorary and active pallbearers.

After his appointment to the Commission, Schmulowitz is elected President. He recommends an outside study of the Library and community leaders suggest the Library improve and expand services.


Robert Rea resigns as City Librarian after 56 years with the Library. Commission Secretary Laurence J. Clarke is appointed to succeed him, the second professional librarian to hold the post. He begins to make plans for a bond issue for an addition to the Main and hopes to expand other services.


On April Fools Day, Schmulowitz donates his collection on Wit and Humor to the Library and gives an endowment. The collection eventually grows to become one of the largest of its kind in the world and is named in his honor.

The Library faces serious budget problems. The federal government threatens to stop providing government documents free of charge after it discovers the Library is not making them available to the public.


A bond issue for 18 new branches and an addition to the Main Library, championed by City Librarian Clarke, fails by 12,000 votes. It will be 40 years before there is another vote.

The Library Commission writes to the Board of Supervisors, “The history of the library clearly shows the lack of interest by the City Administration in the building up of library service.” The report is ignored.


Citizens concerned about the future of the Library meet to form the first, short-lived Friends of the San Francisco Public Library. Nat Schmulowitz presides; Dr. Charles Albert Schumate is elected President. Mary Louise Stong is one of the participants.


The new Parkside and Potrero branches open replacing rented facilities.


Voters turn down a limited bond issue to reorganize the Main Library and make it more efficient.


Marina Branch opens.


Ortega Branch opens.


Anna Waden, a health department employee of modest means, leaves money in her will to construct a new branch in Bayview/Hunters Point.

The Chronicle runs a series of critical articles on the Library by reporter Hale Champion. One headline asks, “Where are the books?” while another article states “Public Library a Disgrace to San Francisco.”

Eureka Valley Branch is damaged in an earthquake.


The Library Commission retains Emerson Greenaway, President of the American Library Association, to survey San Francisco’s Library and make recommendations. His report urges additional city funding, improvements to the Main Library and the hiring of trained staff. Long term, he says, a new building is needed.

Merced Branch opens.


Mayor George Christopher appoints a "Committee of 50" prominent citizens to examine the decline of the Library system, particularly the Main Library. Marjorie Stern is one of the members.

A grand jury report says the Main Library is gloomy, soiled and odoriferous, a kind of skid row hostel for the homeless, a building that is out of date. Only 1500 books were checked out in 1959 vs. 12,000 a year previously.

The new North Beach Branch opens. The old North Beach Branch, a Carnegie building on Powell Street, is renamed Chinatown Branch.


San Franciscans for a Better Library, a citizens group is formed.

William R. Holman, a librarian from San Antonio, is hired to head the San Francisco Library system. He says “San Francisco is a bookish, unique city and it certainly does not deserve a third-rate library.” He estimates that thousands of book catalog cards are missing and tens of thousands of books have yet to be cataloged.


Prominent residents meet to form another Library support group, the San Francisco Library League.

The Committee of 50, San Franciscans for a Better Library and the San Francisco Library League join forces under a new name: Friends of the San Francisco Public Library.
(For leadership, see Box 1, Friends of the San Francisco Public Library).

City Librarian William Holman makes a master’s degree in library science a requirement for new librarians.


A new Eureka Valley Branch opens.


Calligrapher Richard Harrison donates his collection to the Library.


The Friends organization holds its first annual book sale of material donated to the Library. It is chaired by Hilde Kolb and raises $4,000 to purchase rare materials for the Library. Over the years, this sale becomes the biggest in the western United States and raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Library. (For leadership, see Box 1, Friends Book Sale).

The Main Library establishes a collection of material on local history.


The Friends lobby the City for more funds and the book budget gets a significant increase.

The Library begins ordering more materials of interest to the gay and lesbian community.

The Library receives the private collection of Robert Grabhorn on the History of Printing and the Development of the Book, half of it a gift from the Friends.


Western Addition Branch opens.

Margaret "Mig" Mayer becomes the first Executive Director of the Friends of the Library. She will work behind the scenes for twenty-five years supporting improved library services.

The State Librarian designates San Francisco Public Library as the hub of the Bay Area Reference Center (BARC), one of three regional reference groups.

The Library orders its first Japanese language materials for both the Main and Western Addition Branch.


William R. Holman resigns as City Librarian saying he is proud of the Rare Books and Special Collections Department he helped create but tired of internal conflicts. The Examiner says he inherited “one of the most infamous cultural fossils in the country” and moved it in the direction of becoming a modern library.

The Library develops its first African American collections for Bayview, Western Addition, Ocean View and Ingleside branches.


Tucson librarian John Anderson is hired to head the San Francisco system. Anderson describes the Main Library as “the worst metropolitan library in the country.”

Marjorie Stern is appointed to the Library Commission where she will serve until 1989.

A new Excelsior Branch is dedicated.

The Spanish language collections are expanded to include popular materials as well as classic European literature.


San Francisco librarians organize a union, the Librarians Guild, which later becomes an affiliate of SEIU, Local 790. A separate existing organization,

the Staff Association, continues through the early 1990s.

The new Anna E. Waden Branch opens in Bayview, named after its benefactor.


Librarians join other city workers in a four-day strike protesting a proposal to restrict wage increases for city employees.

Chinese language books, newspapers and periodicals are first offered at Chinatown Branch.


The Friends donate the first bookmobile to serve older adults.


Mayor Joseph Alioto faces a major budget deficit and announces closure of Ocean View, Portola and Golden Gate branches to save money. He later drops his plans.

Friends members form a new organization to lobby the state and city for more funding---Keep Libraries Alive! Leaders include Sally Brunn, Grace Macduff Parker, Billie Pearl-Schuler, Mary Louise Stong and Marjorie Stern.


City Librarian Anderson resigns, saying he was given responsibility to run the institution but not the authority to appoint the personnel he needed to get the job done. Mayor Alioto names historian Kevin Starr the Acting City Librarian and will later make him permanent director.


A major fight develops over a site Library supporters hoped to use for a new Main Library. Doubting that the Library can raise the needed private funds for a new Main, Mayor Alioto announces that he is backing Marshall Square as site of a new Symphony Hall. Library Commission President Ed Callanan urges that the Mayor find a different location. Library supporters campaign against the move. With the help of Supervisors Ron Pelosi and Bob Mendelsohn and assistance from attorney William Coblentz, a parking lot is released by the Board of Education for the Symphony Hall site and the Library gets Marshall Square.

The Library pioneers the establishment of services for the hearing and sight impaired using video and audiotapes. A Library for the Blind and Print Handicapped is eventually established at Presidio Branch.


City Librarian Starr requests an increase in the budget and, in the Spirit of 1776, marches the document over to City Hall followed by a Fife and Drum Corps dressed as Minutemen. The Library gets a six percent increase.


The Library’s first automation system is installed.

The Library begins its Black Oral History Project. “Meet Me At the San Francisco Public Library,” a public relations campaign, encourages people to visit the Library and meet William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, the Cat in the Hat and others. It is developed by Friends board member John van der Zee.

Starr steps down as City Librarian. During the search for a new department head, three different interim directors are appointed, two for one month each and one, Edwin Castagna, for six months.


John Frantz is named City Librarian. He once headed the Brooklyn Public Library and worked with the Iranian government to build a new national library.


The Eureka Valley Branch is renamed as a memorial to slain Supervisor Harvey Milk, a long time Library supporter and member of the Friends.

Passage of Proposition 13, rolling back property taxes, seriously impacts the City’s ability to fund the Library and other public agencies.

City Guides, offering free neighborhood history tours, is started by Judith Lynch in the Main Library’s San Francisco History Room.


San Francisco Public Library celebrates its 100th birthday with a giant cake and party in Civic Center Plaza. Friends President David Lelewer cuts the first piece with the silver plated trowel used in 1916 when the cornerstone of the old Library was put in place.


City Librarian Frantz threatens closure of ten neighborhood branches and the business branch if a proposed 20 percent budget cut is enacted. The Keep Libraries Alive! group demonstrates at City Hall. The Friends pay the rent for the Business Branch.

The Friends assume responsibility for continuing the City Guides program.


A budget compromise keeps all branches open.

The Library pioneers in the selection of children’s books celebrating diverse cultures and devoid of social stereotypes. The collection is named the Effie Lee Morris Historical and Research Collection of Children’s Literature, honoring the Library’s first Coordinator of Children’s Services.

Vietnamese language materials are first offered at Chinatown Branch.


A report by Columbia University library expert Lowell Martin recommends consolidation of branches to save money and improve service quality. The report catalyzes the opposite effect, increasing public support for the branches.

The Friends open Book Bay at Fort Mason to sell donated books and materials. The money helps fund Library projects the City could otherwise not afford.

The Friends and City Arts & Lectures, led by Sydney Goldstein, launch a literary lecture series that proves popular with the reading public.

Mary Louise Stong is appointed to the Library Commission, where she will serve for the next six years.


Project Read, a program teaching adults how to read, is launched by the Friends. Olive “Babs” Waugh is its first director. Later, the Library will take over operation of the program.


Attorney James W. Haas, a member of the Friends board, convinces the group to support a masterplan for the entire Civic Center. He writes Mayor Feinstein suggesting a new Main Library on Marshall Square while moving a museum into the old Main building.

Mayor Feinstein meets with City Librarian Frantz and commissioners Callanan, Stern and Stong. The mayor is skeptical of the Library’s ability to raise significant private funds needed for a new building but listens to their arguments.

Book Buddies, a program using volunteers to read and tell stories to ill children in hospitals, is initiated.

Mayor Feinstein asks for a ten percent budget cut from the Library and other agencies to address a budget shortfall.


Mayor Feinstein asks Deputy City Mayor Peter Henschel to form a task force to develop a Civic Center masterplan.

A report by consultants Becker and Hayes/Omni-Group criticizes the Main and calls for building a new Library next door on Marshall Square.

Hundreds of Library supporters meet at the Main Library and hear New York City Librarian Vartan Gregorian speak eloquently about the need for a new Main Library. It is the 25th anniversary of the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library.


The Fire Marshal closes the stacks of the Main Library until 100,000 books are removed, calling it a fire hazard.

City Librarian John Frantz resigns, in part because he opposes building a new Main Library, believing that technology will reduce the need for physical storage space.

The Friends start organizing a political campaign, anticipating a bond issue for the new Main Library. (For leadership, see Box 1, 1988 Main Bond Campaign).

A second study by Becker and Hayes/Omni-Group underscores the viability of Marshall Square for a new Library. Another study by consultant Skidmore Owings & Merrill recommends that the current Main Library be used as a museum.

Mayoral candidate Art Agnos advocates construction of a new Main Library, saying, “We’ve had enough studies and task forces. Let’s act.” He is elected in December.

Deputy Mayor Henschel asks Asian Art Museum chair Judy Wilbur if the museum would be interested in leaving Golden Gate Park and taking over the old Main Library building. The idea is controversial. Her board expresses interest but no commitment is made.

Ken Dowlin, one of the nation’s leading advocates for the high tech library of the future, is hired as the new City Librarian. San Francisco Examiner columnist Bill Mandel suggests it will take “the Clint Eastwood of librarians” to succeed given all the politics and challenges.

In the final weeks of her term, Mayor Feinstein sends the Board of Supervisors a series of recommendations for Civic Center, including building a new Library on Marshall Square and turning the old Library into a museum. A construction cost estimate for the new Main Library is $120 million, a record level for a city bond. Officials overseeing city bond issues fear it will never pass and reduce the proposed funding for the Main by $15.5 million. They then add $5 million back for branch remodeling, hoping it will increase political support for the bond.

Marjorie Stern begins discussions with various business and community leaders about forming a Library Foundation to raise needed money for the new Main. She anticipates bond approval and knows that the bond will not cover fixtures, furniture and other upgrades. Many are skeptical about the Library’s ability to raise money.

(For leadership, see Box 5, Library Foundation & Main Campaign).


Mayor Agnos and the Board of Supervisors approve Proposition A for the November ballot, authorizing funds to build the new Main Library and to start branch renovations. They also approve Proposition N allowing the Asian Art Museum to take control of the old Main Library. Opponents of the Library bond say it is too expensive and it would be better to remodel the old Main.

Seventy-six percent of voters approve the bond for a new Main Library.
(For leadership, see Box 1, 1988 Main Bond Campaign).

The Asian Art Museum agrees to make the old Main Library its new home. The Museum and the new Main Library share a champion. In the late 1950s, Marjorie Stern and a small group of Asian art enthusiasts convinced Chicago millionaire Avery Brundage to contribute his massive Asian art collection to San Francisco.

Marjorie Stern leaves the Library Commission and is named Honorary Commissioner for Life by Mayor Agnos.

A referendum allows collective bargaining for public employees. The Librarians Guild begins negotiating its first contract with the Library.

Budget problems force Mayor Agnos to propose cuts for various departments including the Library. A suggestion to temporarily close several branches meets strong community opposition. Eventually the Business Branch is closed but other branches are spared.

Mel and Charlotte Swig, major civic and philanthropic leaders, are approached about chairing the fundraising campaign for the new Main Library. They agree if an experienced foundation executive such as Martin Paley takes the Executive Director role. Paley agrees.

Philanthropist Ann G. Getty and Stanford Professor Emeritus John W. Gardner agree to be honorary co-chairs. Gardner, founder of Common Cause and HEW Secretary under President Lyndon Johnson, was a key architect of the Great Society.

Tagalog language collections are developed for Excelsior Branch and the Main Library.


A committee of 25 community leaders, including Marjorie Stern, Mary Louise Stong and Mig Mayer, interview various architects for the new Main and recommend two firms working in association. The City approves the recommendation and hires Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein Moris of San Francisco, and Pei Cobb Freed &Partners of New York City.
(For leadership, see Box 1, Designing & Building the New Main).

The challenge is designing a major new Library for the 21st Century replacing in essence a 19th Century building with outdated technology. At the same time, California’s economy is in recession, the City budget is in the red and few believe the Library can raise millions of dollars in private funds.

Mig Mayer retires as Executive Director of the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library. Jane Winslow is selected to replace her.

The Loma Prieta earthquake damages the old Main. The seven level book stacks with glass floors twist as the earth moves shearing some glass into long thick shards and dumping hundreds of thousands of books on the floor. The Library is closed. City building officials say staff cannot be ordered into such an unsafe space. Ignoring the danger, staff members volunteer to retrieve the books. The staff and 300 community volunteers then move the books to temporary storage space in an empty building in the Presidio. Repairs take several months.

When the Main re-opens, hundreds of people gather for a celebration, including a troupe of accordion players campaigning to make the accordion the official musical instrument of San Francisco. They succeed.

In support of freedom of speech, the Library hosts “I am Salman Rushdie” Day at the Main Library. Bay Area writers read excerpts from Rushdie’s 1989 book Satanic Verses. Rushdie, Indian-born and a British citizen, has gone into hiding after the religious leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, declared the book blasphemous and called for his assassination.

Another difficult budget year forces the Library to cut services. As part of the reductions, the Library officially stops updating the out-of-date and labor-intensive card catalog, anticipating a state-of-the-art computer system in a few years.

The Library forms the Council of Neighborhood Libraries, giving activists a forum to voice their opinions about library policies. The group also takes an independent leadership role in fighting branch closures and the diminution of library services.
(For founding members, see Box 1, Council of Neighborhood Libraries).


Sheet music collector Dorothy Starr dies, leaving a vast collection of 500,000 pieces of published music. The Friends purchase the collection from her estate for the Art & Music Department of the Library.

Design work for the new Main Library is underway. Because the Board of Supervisors had earlier reduced the bond size $15.5 million, the architects and City officials eliminate one entire floor from the plan to stay within budget.

A public meeting is held at the Library for the Blind at the Presidio Branch to decide whether to relocate to the new Main Library. After vigorous debate, community leader Rose Resnick makes an impassioned speech to move to Civic Center. The group votes overwhelmingly to move.

Library Commissioner Ed Callanan, first appointed by Mayor Jack Shelley in 1964, steps down after 26 years of service.


The Library Foundation begins public efforts to raise money for the new Main Library and the Chinatown Branch expansion.

A fundraising study by Charlie Howland suggests the Foundation will be unable to raise even $20 million because California is in a recession and the Library has no existing donor base. Nevertheless, Mel Swig feels the Library needs more and increases the goal to $25 million, with an additional $5 million to start an endowment.

Over the next three years, the Main Campaign, as it will be called, raises $36 million under the leadership of the Swigs and others.
(For leadership, see Box 5, Library Foundation & Main Campaign).

Chronicle Columnist Herb Caen proclaims that the new Library will henceforth be known as the New Main. Eventually the New Main periodical reading room will be named in his honor. One of his typewriters will be included in the collection.

The Library Commission adopts a Five Year Strategic Plan outlining new services for traditionally underserved communities, organizing around collections where there is broad public interest and developing more dependable sources of revenue.

Commission President Steve Coulter advocates creating a gay and lesbian historical archive, the first in a public library in the U.S. Leaders in the gay and lesbian community express strong support and help shape it. At a press conference, Mayor Agnos, Coulter and others announce its creation. Author Randy Shilts says, “We’re losing far too many people to the AIDS epidemic - it’s essential we not lose our history, too.”
(For leadership, see Box 5, Gay & Lesbian Group).

The Foundation supports the gay and lesbian archive but is concerned about raising money for one group when funds are needed for the entire building. The gay and lesbian organizing committee agrees to raise money for the Library as a whole as well as the archive, setting the tone for other campaigns.

Library Foundation Executive Director Martin Paley, facing a skeptical donor community, believes the Library is the most democratic of public institutions. He makes that principal the heart of the campaign. “Many of the City’s diverse communities have both the interest and capacity to participate in private giving for the public good,” says Paley, “but generally are not asked to do so.” Paley asks them and the communities respond with enthusiasm. Many are involved in a great civic campaign for the first time.

This effort to recruit all segments of the community in the fundraising and organizing around collections and services becomes known as the “Affinity Group” campaign. The initiative is extraordinarily successful and creates an emotional depth to the campaign as different communities share their dreams, new collections and services develop with staff help, and a new sense of philanthropy blossoms in the community. As the campaign approaches the $30 million mark, over 18,000 individuals and organizations have contributed. Around the country, other libraries and civic efforts adopt a similar model.
(For leadership, see Box 5, Affinity Group Campaign).

The City’s busiest branch, Chinatown, is scheduled to be upgraded and doubled in size. A fundraising campaign, linked to the Chinese American Center in the Main Campaign, is organized. Community leader Rosalyn Koo plays a key role in the fundraising for both and in helping the Library manage problems in the City’s handling of construction and design issues relating to the branch.
(For leadership, see Box 5, Friends of the Chinatown Branch).

The Main Library opens the “Prides & Joys” exhibit of rare books and fine print volumes in the collection. It is organized by printer Andrew Hoyem, Marjorie Stern and other book collectors and rare book enthusiasts.

Library activist Sally Brunn dies and the Library Commission re-names the Noe Valley branch in her honor in 1992. Shortly before her death, friends and officials hold an event to thank her for her years of service. She requests that it be a Library fund-raiser. Over $15,000 is raised to buy more books on political activism, according to her wish.

Labor unions help the Main building effort. The Building and Construction Trades Council led by Stan Smith agrees to tear down the old USO building on Marshall Square as a gift to the Library. During World War II, the same union built the USO as a gift to American soldiers.

The Library acquires the 10,000-volume gay and lesbian pulp fiction collection of book collectors Barbara Grier and Donna McBride of Florida. Other historic materials are donated or loaned to the Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center over the next few years, including the Harvey Milk/Scott Smith Collection, archives from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society of Northern California, materials from Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay, author Randy Shilts and filmmakers Peter Adair and Rob Epstein.


Ground is broken for the New Main Library on Marshall Square. Mayor Frank Jordan uses the same silver shovel used by Mayor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph to break ground for City Hall. Hundreds attend the ceremony.

The Library excavation uncovers part of the old jail and other rubble from City Hall when it collapsed in the 1906 earthquake. Also found are some hand bones and 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 Library is again facing budget cuts and the economy is in a recession. With the cry of “Find the Funds,” the Keep Libraries Alive! committee campaigns for more Library funding.

The Friends give the Library a new bookmobile to serve shut-ins and the elderly.


Civic leader, philanthropist and co-chair of the Main Campaign, Mel Swig dies after a long illness. A few months earlier, Swig attends what will be his last Main Campaign rally. It is the emotional high point of the campaign. He listens as members of the Affinity Groups talk about what the campaign means to them and their communities, moving beyond symbolism to full participation in a great civic venture. 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 when the Library proposes moving the Victorian era Pioneer Monument that sits at Hyde and Grove streets. It originally stood before the old City Hall that was demolished by the 1906 earthquake. Some historic preservationists fight the move, citing the statue’s beauty and the historical relevance of the site; Native Americans call the statue racist. The Library Foundation pays to move the 800-ton monument to a site between the old Library and the new Main.

An anonymous group of donors offers to fund a program of the Library’s choice. The Library accepts the offer and dramatically expands its telephone reference service.


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

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

The Friends of the Library under the leadership of President Diane Filippi launch a ballot initiative for the Library to receive a minimal level of funding for books, materials and service hours to stop the boom and bust cycle of Library funding. When funds for the campaign run low, Mary Louise Stong loans the campaign money to continue the fight. Proposition E passes with over 70% of the vote.
(For leadership, see Box 1, Prop E Campaign).

Friends for Life, a library volunteer program to bring books to those with HIV and AIDS who are housebound, is started.

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

Lessons learned from the Northridge earthquake in Southern California lead to re-welding critical joints in the New Main, which is still under construction. Sitting on rubber isolators that act as shock absorbers, the new building is designed to withstand an 8.3 earthquake.

The Library establishes a new program for people with dyslexia and other learning differences sponsored by the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation and the Roberts Foundation.


Because of Prop E funds, the book and materials budget triples in size and system open hours increase 46%. The Main Library begins its first serious inventory in decades. Branch libraries receive thousands of new books and staff begins weeding collections to make room for new materials.

At the end of the year, the old Main Library closes to the public. 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. By hand and truck the collection is moved, this time just across the street. Tens of thousands of new books are purchased for the grand opening and tens of thousands more are donated by affinity groups and other organizations.

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 rather than move them to the new building. The Library administration defends the professional standards and judgment of staff. The argument escalates into a shrill debate on books and technology, tradition and change.


Mayor Willie L. Brown, Jr. appoints a new Library Commission, replacing six of seven members. Sherry Agnos, honorary co-chair of the 1988 bond issue for the New Main, is appointed. Fran Streets, a retired banker and prominent civic leader, is retained.

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 commemorating the years of struggle to build the New Main.

In tents outside the New Main a special Family Day event draws 12,000 parents and children. Local celebrities, including actor Robin Williams, read their favorite children’s stories.

Construction of the New Main is complete. It is one of the first major public buildings in the U.S. to incorporate many green building features. Special attention goes to indoor air quality and even the carpets use special adhesive materials to minimize indoor pollutants. It is the first building in San Francisco to have talking signs to assist sight-impaired patrons.

April 18, 1996. The new Main Library is ready to open. 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 between the old Main and the new, wrapping around the Pioneer Monument, and take part in the opening ceremonies.
(For details, see Box 3, New Main Opens).

The first book checked out? Peter Wiley’s “A Free Library in this City.”

Fourteen thousand people come through the building on its first day, and the next, and the next. A million visit the building in just over three months. On weekends the doors have to be closed periodically and people asked to wait because the crowds are too large. Staff is overwhelmed but works hard to meet the demand.

The opening is not without problems. The complex seven level building opens with makeshift signs because the sign maker declares bankruptcy just before the opening and never delivers the signage. The book conveyor system that delivers materials to the sorting room can’t handle the volume and breaks down.

For an institution long starved for funding and civic attention, there is suddenly abundance on several levels: more public and private money; dramatic increases in new materials, collections and archives; a new online computer system to replace the old card catalog; heavy media attention; and massive crowds. San Franciscans are passionate about their Library, tradition and change and a lively debate rages for months.
(For details, see Box 4, Debate on the New Main).

Crowds set new service records. For the first year, Main 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. Tens of thousands more visit the online web site, use Library databases or attend Library-sponsored functions.

Outside of the spotlight, the public expresses itself in different ways. One woman writes in the guest book of the Hormel Center:
“When I looked at the ceiling mural entitled "Into the Light," I started to cry. A city institution actually making a statement that I am important, reaching out to me, saying that my history matters. It is so beautiful and so important.”

The New Main holds its first three exhibitions:

  • Building the Library.
  • San Francisco: The Dimensions of Diversity.
  • San Francisco: The Politics of Inclusion.

All are funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

The 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 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 survey by the City Controller on what the public thinks of various government agencies lists the S.F. Public Library as the most respected institution and librarians as the most popular workers.

The Kresge Foundation International Center contains material in 40 languages with emphasis placed on materials in their original languages rather than translations. U.S. citizenship study guides are also available.

Chinatown Branch re-opens, twice as large as before. Lion dancers and hundreds of supporters attend the opening ceremony.

A new budget controversy develops. City Librarian Ken Dowlin, saying he is tired of the constant fighting and feeling that he has met many of his goals including building the New Main, resigns. Kathy Page, Chief of the Main, steps in as temporary City Librarian, the first woman to hold the position.


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 are co-chairs of the inaugural event.

Mission Branch reopens after extensive remodeling.

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 imposed 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. This comes nearly four decades after she first worked at this Library as a page while going to library school.

Brave Little Girls exhibit opens, depicting young women heroines in children’s literature. The exhibit will later receive the prestigious John Cotton Dana Award from the American Library Association.

The Library Commission authorizes a Post Occupancy Evaluation of the New Main to analyze ways to make the building more efficient.

The Friends of the Library and the Library Foundation merge into one organization, the Friends & Foundation of the San Francisco Public Library. Marjorie Stern, Deborah Doyle, Leslie Luttgens and others spend months working out details. The leaders of each organization, Margie O’Driscoll and Chuck Forester, are named co-Executive Directors.

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


Mayor Brown proposes funding and building a new Ocean View Branch. The neighborhood strongly supports the project, providing ideas for services and helping raise funds for furniture and equipment.

Through My Father’s Eyes: Pioneers of the San Francisco Filipino Community exhibit opens at the New Main. It eventually becomes part of a permanent Smithsonian Institute traveling exhibit.

“City of Angels,” a movie about angels who live in libraries and look after people, films various sequences in the New Main. It stars Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan.


Over 25,000 historical photographs from the Library collections are digitized and made accessible on the Library’s website.

Email reference service begins.

A citywide survey shows 80% of San Franciscans believe that the Library system is clean, safe, has attractive buildings and a friendly and courteous staff.

Library records show 333 organizations and over 12,000 people use meeting rooms in the New Main this year.


City Librarian Minudri steps down for health reasons and Deputy City Librarian Susan Hildreth becomes Acting Director. Hildreth will be named permanent City Librarian in 2001.