Times Past

San Luis Obispo public library turns a whistlestop into a town

The Andrews Bank Building in 1897 when the upstairs became a public library.
The Andrews Bank Building in 1897 when the upstairs became a public library.

The way to put your town on the map was to have a public library.

The uniquely American public library movement was linked to modernizing communities. On May 5, 1894, daily train service was established between San Francisco and San Luis Obispo. Nine days after the first train arrived, the town began plans for a library.

Judge McDowell R. Venable summoned a meeting to create the first permanent public library. The San Luis Obispo Library Association was formally incorporated under California law.

It was organized as a subscription library. The fee was 50 cents a month. Taking out $50 life memberships were historian, journalist and sometime editor Myron Angel; banker J. W. Barneberg; Morning Tribune editor Benjamin Brooks; and Phoebe Apperson Hearst, widow of U.S. Sen. George Hearst.

Community leaders as diverse as banker A.F. Fitzgerald, merchant Louis Sinsheimer, real estate developer Chauncey Hatch Phillips Jr., and Brooks served on the association’s board.

These citizens secured a fully paid, 20-year lease for upstairs space in the Andrews Bank Building at the corner of Osos and Monterey streets.

The Rev. F.W. Summers, retired pastor of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, was appointed librarian. The library board’s minutes indicate he “died while in charge in 1898.”

The subscription library opened June 15, 1894. Mrs. J.P. Andrews rented the Pavilion, San Luis Obispo’s largest hall, for a reception. The sale of refreshments produced a $54 profit.

By December 1894, “the funds in the treasury were so low that it was found necessary to close the library in the evening to save the expense of light.”

In 1919, Benjamin Brooks recalled, “the Public Library had quite a struggle for existence and failed for many years to enlist the interest of the public.”

Part of this, Brooks said, was that county residents tended to be “of frugal mind.”

Meanwhile, literate members of our community plugged away to keep the library open. In January 1895, an entertainment was held that netted $223, with library trustees designating $50 to pay for new books.

The library had started with 768 volumes. It added 791 volumes during the first year of operation. The library had 4,585 visitors and loaned 1,072 books to subscribers. The high ratio of “visitors” to “loans” suggests that user subscription fees might have been beyond the reach of many citizens.

On Sept. 16, 1897, the trustees met and transferred the property to the city of San Luis Obispo. On Sept. 23, it became a “public library.” You no longer needed to pay a fee to check out materials.

The early years of public ownership weren’t easy. Hard times reduced the local tax base. Properties valued at tens of thousands of dollars during the boom of the 1880s were reassessed at $500 to $800 in the 1890s. The library’s special district tax rate was set at a minimal level commensurate with the hard times.

Despite the toil and trouble, the library’s advocates kept the library going.

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The San Luis Obispo Friends of the Library will hold its annual three-day book sale beginning Thursday.

“There are more children’s books than ever,” sale chairman Paul Murphy said. The mammoth sale will be held at the Veterans Memorial Building, 801 Grand Ave.

Hours are: Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m. (members only, with memberships sold at the door), Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. It’s a grand bargain at $1 an inch for most books.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com. Liz Krieger is a retired children’s librarian for the San Luis Obispo County Library.