The social history of the San Diego library system began in 1870 and continues through 2013, when San Diego’s proposed $185 million 9-story central library building is scheduled for completion.  San Diego is illustrative of the public library movement in the United States between the American Civil War and World War I.  This blog reviews the development of a library movement in San Diego. 

Recognizing the benefits of a library, San Diego’s founding fathers developed subscription libraries in the 1880s in the hope of luring people to the tiny town of San Diego, California.  These pay for privileges libraries had small collections and no permanent home.  As the 19th century came to a close, there was a multi-faceted effort to bring free public library services to all.

The American free library movement blossomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries due to the passage of state library laws, voluntary women’s associations, and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.   State library laws, such as California’s 1880 statute, enabled municipalities to establish public libraries through local tax dollars.  With library enabling laws on the books, women’s voluntary associations, such as the Wednesday Club in San Diego, began raising public awareness and money to establish free public libraries in their communities.   While women throughout the country were establishing the need for public libraries, Andrew Carnegie was providing the funding — between 1886 and 1919, Carnegie donated more than $40 million to pay for 1,679 new library buildings in communities throughout the country. 

The motivations of those involved in the free public library movement are varied.  Carnegie, a self-educated Scottish immigrant, believed in creating opportunities for immigrants like him.  In his autobiography, Carnegie said that the “fundamental advantage of a library is that it gives nothing for nothing.  Youths must acquire knowledge themselves.  There is no escape from this.”  In sum, Carnegie did not believe in giving people something for nothing.  He believed in giving the tools necessary for people to build something for themselves.

The women’s association sought the establishment of free public libraries as a means of civic improvement.  The members of the Wednesday Club also echoed Carnegie’s sentiments about giving immigrants opportunities to Americanize themselves through self-education. 

Public libraries have always been short on funding, books, and space.  Throughout the history of the San Diego Public Library, no one ever debated the benefits of a public library.  The only debate seemed to be how the library was to be financed.  This appears to have been the case on the national level as well.  While some rejected Carnegie funds to build community libraries, they did so because of animosity toward Carnegie, not toward the notion of a free public library system.   

This blog reviews the specific historical development of the San Diego library system in light of the development of the larger national library movement.  San Diego was the first city in California to receive funding from Carnegie to build a free public library.  As such, San Diego is excellent example of the movement as it went from subscription libraries to free public libraries. 

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