San Rafael Public Library

Brief History of San Rafael Public Library

A Library Is Born

It is astonishing how quickly the foundation was laid for a library that would endure into the 21st century. On April 20, 1887, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union decided to establish a coffee and read­ing room in the town of San Rafael. One month later, the group staged a Flower Festival and Musicale to fund the enterprise. The Marin Journal of June 2, 1887, announced, “The Coffee Room and Free Library is now open.” Through fundraising, donations, and sub­scriptions, the “ladies of the W.C.T.U.” were able to move to a rented building on Fourth Street by early December. By that time, the Library Association had more than 60 members, each paying $1 a month.


The Town Accepts Guardianship

The Library Association formally presented the library to the town Library Trustees on April 30, 1890. The assets included furniture, more than 1,000 books, and $33.50 in the treasury. As noted in the May 8 issue of the Marin Journal, “It is a matter of congratulation that through the efforts of a few public-spirited women the town is now in a position to maintain a free library. The members of the old Board of Town Trustees deserve special mention for carrying out the will of the people in levying a library tax.”


A New High School and Library

Despite a desperate need to move high school classes out of the grammar school, a school bond measure failed in 1897. The next year, “the question was again brought before the townspeople. As a special inducement the public library was to have one large room in the proposed new building.” Success! The bonds were carried by a large majority. However, when the handsome new high school opened on E Street in 1899, the Library Trustees opted not to relocate due to increased operating expenses. It took four years to make the move, and the library operated from the school for five years.

Friends in High Places

In December 1904, the City Trustees had resolved to provide oper­ating funds and secure a site for a new library if Mr. Andrew Carnegie would donate the money to erect the building. Fortunately for San Rafael, local resident Judge William W. Morrow served as a Trustee of the Carnegie Institution and was a personal friend of Carnegie. Judge Morrow arranged to have lunch with his friend at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City on the Saturday before the Trustees’ Mon­day meeting in Washington, D.C. As reported in The New York Call:

Judge Morrow took occasion to compliment [Carnegie] on his generosity in providing libraries for many cities and towns and remarked casually that San Rafael, Cal., had not yet thus been honored. “How big is San Rafael?” asked the Scotchman. Judge Morrow informed him. “Then I will give $12,500,” said Carnegie. “Remember that I live there,” suggested Judge Morrow. “I shall not let that fact stand to prejudice of San Rafael,” said Carnegie, “and so I will make it $25,000 out of pure sympathy for San Rafael people.” Clearly, Mr. Carnegie had a sense of humor.


Civic Support and a Tragic Delay

The Library Trustees undertook a vigorous campaign to raise the $6,500 needed to purchase the library site. They received support from 58 individuals and three corporations, with gifts ranging from $10 to $500 (about $200 to $10,000 in today’s dollars). The deed for the lot was filed on March 1, 1906, just a few weeks before San Fran­cisco was devastated by earthquake and fire on April 18, 1906.

All local construction projects were delayed as San Francisco was rebuilt. Finally, the dedication of the San Rafael Public Library in its elegant new Carnegie building took place on January 9, 1909. The building was designed by Reid Brothers, one of the best-known and most well-respected architectural firms in San Francisco.

Carnegie Building Undergoes Radical Changes

By the late 1950s, the San Rafael community had outgrown its library. Local architect Gordon A. Phillips was hired to design a 6,000 square foot addition that would more than double the library’s size. He placed the addition on the north façade, removed the exterior steps and second floor entry, and altered the windows in the Carnegie building to match the new addition. The expanded library was dedi­cated on February 28, 1960.

The Second and Final Expansion

Once again, San Rafael outgrew its library and the next step was to enclose the parking area under the 1960 addition. When the new space opened in 1976, library director Vivian R. Smith called it a “short-term solution to a long-growing need for more library space.” Though the library underwent two major construction projects in the ensuing years, neither expanded the usable space. In July 1992, the library was closed for earthquake retrofitting and reopened a year later. During construction, the library returned to its pre-Carnegie location at the old E Street School, operating with one-fifth of its collection. Most recently, after nearly 100 years of operation, the library was updated with air conditioning and new double-paned windows in 2008.

Then and Now

Who would have thought that a 19th century industrialist would be responsible for saving millions of trees while serving millions of readers by promoting sharing? Andrew Carnegie would be intrigued to see this library today, filled not only with books, but with computers, WiFi hotspots, DVDs, eBook readers, and so much more. One can imagine that he would herald any innovation that helps the library to fulfill its mission: Sharing Resources, Promoting Literacy. At the time the Library opened, the collection included just over 7,000 vol­umes; there are now nearly 120,000 books in the Library. Library users and community leaders agree on the need for expansion to accommodate new equipment and formats as well as more books, seating, and meeting rooms. It is up to the citizens to continue the proud legacy of San Rafael Public Library into the next century.

Prepared by: Kay Noguchi, Former Supervising Librarian, San Rafael Public Library January 2009

  • Downtown Library

    Sun: 10:00-5:00
    Mon: 9:00-7:00
    Tues: 9:00-7:00
    Weds: 9:00-7:00
    Thurs: 9:00-7:00
    Fri: 10:00-5:00
    Sat: 10:00-5:00

    (415) 485-3323

    1100 E Street (at 5th Avenue)
    San Rafael, CA 94901

  • Pickleweed Library

    Sun: closed
    Mon: closed
    Tues: 9:00-5:00
    Weds: 9:00-5:00
    Thurs: 11:00-7:00
    Fri: 10:00-5:00
    Sat: 10:00-5:00

    (415) 485-3483

    50 Canal Street
    San Rafael, CA 94901

  • Northgate Library

    Sun: closed
    Mon: closed
    Tues: closed
    Weds: 11:00-5:00
    Thurs: 11:00-5:00
    Fri: 11:00-5:00
    Sat: 11:00-5:00

    (415) 890-5670

    5800 Northgate Drive Ste. 083
    San Rafael, CA 94903

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