Times Past

How San Luis Obispo got its first library

San Luis Obispo’s first free library, the Carnegie Library, is the home to the History Center.
San Luis Obispo’s first free library, the Carnegie Library, is the home to the History Center. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Public libraries are more alive and needed than ever before. They’ve also reinvented themselves to meet the needs of our rapidly changing world.

My wife, Liz, a retired children’s librarian, volunteers at Hawthorne Elementary School in San Luis Obispo. Grades 3 through 6 walk to our home, where they eat pizza, listen to book talks and get to carry away as many books as they wish. They are building their own personal libraries. The outflow keeps us busy seeking new sources of gently used books at reasonable prices.

Many libraries, including a number in our county, have their own “friends of the library” bookstores. We have a “library bookstore circuit” that extends from Laguna Beach north to Carpinteria and onto Foster City and Berkeley, where Liz often finds just the right book for one of her Hawthorne students.

We also have an out-of-state circuit that extends into the Midwest. One of our favorite libraries stands on a bluff above the shores of Lake Superior in the once grimy iron-ore seaport of Duluth, Minn. Its ultra-modern art deco design is appropriately modeled after a Great Lakes steamship with “great books” as its passengers.

Our godson, Quentin Ogren Lourey loves what he calls the “kid’s cooking area at the library.” He likes to say that he is “curious like Curious George.”

Unusual venues for bringing books to the public go back at least several thousand years. The Greco-Roman bath houses in the Mediterranean world featured scriptorium with scrolls in dry rooms for patrons of the baths. I’m certain that neither Benjamin Franklin, when he founded his free library in Philadelphia in 1731, or Andrew Carnegie, at his first endowed free library in Dunfermline, Scotland, in 1880, would have envisioned linking libraries to bathing.

The white-haired Franklin did, however, love to greet the admiring ladies of France while enclosed in his copper-covered bath when he was our ambassador in the early 1780s. He may well have read a book or two between visitors.

Both Franklin and Carnegie understood the necessity of the information exchange that libraries provided for a democracy. Ultimately, Carnegie would put his considerable fortune behind the need to provide adequate housing for libraries. That didn’t happen in San Luis Obispo until 1904.

Ten years earlier, in 1894, civic leaders organized a subscription library. The fee was 50 cents a month. Some of the $50 life members included historian, journalist and sometime editor Myron Angel; banker J. W. Barneberg; Benjamin Brooks, the editor of the Morning Tribune; and Mrs. Phoebe Apperson Hearst, widow of Sen. George Hearst, a frequent resident of the North Coast.

These citizens “secured a paid-up lease for 20 years” for upstairs space in the Andrews Bank Building. Still, there wasn’t always an adequate fund to pay the electric light bill.

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

Five years later, Andrew Carnegie offered San Luis Obispo a new, dedicated library building if the town would agree to fill its shelves with books and pay the salary of a librarian.

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You may chance upon just the book you want for yourself or a friend among the carefully organized, gently used books at the San Luis Obispo Friends of the Library’s mammoth book sale scheduled for March 3 through 5 at the Veterans Memorial Building, 801 Grand Ave. The hours are: 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, March 3, (members only, with memberships sold at the door); 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, March 4; and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, March 5.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.