From Humble Beginnings
History of the San Rafael Public Library
The Women's Christian Temperance Union establishes a coffee and reading room. They later moved to a building on Fourth Street with more than 60 members, each of whom paid $1 per month for membership.
The Library Association formally presents the library to the town trustees. The assets furniture, more than 1,000 books, and $33.50 in the treasury. The Marin Journal proclaims, "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.
After a failed school bond measure in 1897, the measure was sent to the electorate again a year later with the added incentive of having a room in the proposed high school dedicated to the Public Library. The bonds passed with a large majority and the new high school was completed in 1899. Due to the increase in operating expenses, it took the Library Trustees four years, until 1903, to complete the move to the E Street High School.
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.
After a vigorous campaign, the Library Trustees were able to collect donations totalling $6,500 to purchase the library site. The deed for the lot sale was filed on March 1, 1906, just a few weeks before the devastating April 18, 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Local construction projects like the library were delayed while San Francisco was rebuilt, but builders were able to complete construction of the new library for its dedication on January 9, 1909.
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.
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.
Since the doors of the original Carnegie library opened in 1909, San Rafael's population has grown tenfold. Despite band-aid expansions in 1960 and 1976, the city's library has been running far beyond its capacity for decades. The 100-year-old building can no longer meet the space, technology and personnel needs of today's thriving San Rafael. We have no room for much needed programs for children and teens and our Library's collection cannot grow. A bold, new vision is needed to fill San Rafael's literary needs, and the SRPLF aims to build a better library for all of San Rafael.