The rich history of the San Diego Public Library mirrors the greater free public library movement in the United States between the Civil War and World War I.  As in eastern cities, San Diego’s first libraries were subscription libraries, available only to those able to pay initiation fees and monthly dues.  The rise of women’s clubs during the second half of the 19th century fueled the creation of free public libraries, including the San Diego Public Library.  San Diego was one of the over 1,400 cities and towns throughout the country that received funding from Andrew Carnegie to build a free public library. 

In San Diego, one motivation for a free public library has been constant – a library is good for business.  Alonzo Horton, the founder of modern San Diego, used the promise of a public library as a lure:  “More than a year ago we were informed that Mr. Horton had purchased a large number of books for a library, and that fact was held out as one of the inducements for families to come among us” (Evans, 1962, quoting San Diego Union, January 27, 1870).  Almost thirty years later, when George Marston was lobbying the San Diego City Council to accept Carnegie’s gift of $50,000 to build a free public library and to levy a tax to support that gift, Marston wrote:


As a business man, I cannot think of anything that this city could do that would bring better returns to it than the use of forty or fifty thousand dollars to place the Carnegie library building where it out to be and with adequate grounds about . . . Look at Coronado.  Why do Spreckels and Babcock spend tens of thousands in avenues, parks and gardens?  With all my respect for them I don’t believe it’s philanthropy.  They have got long heads and they know it pays.”  (Marston). 

Even today, as San Diego struggles to secure funding for its new central library, the city realizes the necessity for a strong central library:  “Our current central library, over a half-century old, is a civic disgrace  . . .  San Diego merits a first-class century library” (San Diego Union Tribune, 2007, December 23, Clock is ticking).  A thriving public library still makes good business sense and is a source of civic pride.

It is unclear what the motivations of the Wednesday Club were in engaging in the free library movement.  In her letter to Carnegie, Lydia Horton did not list any philosophical reasons for seeking funding for a free public library.  However, given the notoriety of Carnegie’s program, perhaps she tendered her request in terms that she believed he would appreciate.  Regarding patronage, Lydia wrote: 

We have lately established a children’s library league . . . We have a large floating population who are given all the privileges of the library.  Invalids who come for a few weeks or months will find our library a great source of pleasure.  We have soldiers stationed here who find our books a refuge from the monotony of their life” (Koch). 

When Lydia Horton gave the speech at the cornerstone ceremony for the new San Diego Carnegie Library, she regurgitated Carnegie’s story and words: 

Let us hope that it will bind not only the walls of our building together, but unite us as a people in the unselfish desire for the common good, and our realization of the common need.  It is this desire, this realization, which prompts Mr. Carnegie’s splendid gifts to humanity, believing as he does, with Lowell, that the best part of man’s education is that which he gives himself.  This is the opportunity which our public libraries furnish – the means of self-education” (id.). 

Carnegie was not present at the dedication cornerstone ceremony, so there was no need for Lydia Horton to play to him.  It is not clear whether the values that Lydia Horton espoused were her own, those of the Wednesday Club, or Carnegie’s.

When the San Diego Public Library wrote again to Carnegie in 1923 for funding for a new central library, it highlighted its work with immigrants: 

Our foreign population which is 20.7% is furnished with books in Spanish, French, Italian, German, Czecko-Slovak and Yiddish which are read in the order given.  The Japanese and Chinese use the library only for English books.  We also have several hundred negro borrowers (San Diego Public Library to H.S. Pritchett [Carnegie Corporation] October 8, 1923). 

Did City Librarian Warren include those statistics in the letter because that was important to San Diego or because it was important to Carnegie?  Perhaps Warren was parroting the concerns Dewey had written regarding “foreigners” use of public libraries.  As a professional librarian, active in local, state and national library associations, Warren must have been aware of Dewey’s writing.

Whenever the issue of building a free public library came up, no one opposed the concept.  All realized the importance and value to the community that a library brings.  Even those communities that rejected funds from Carnegie did so because they despised Carnegie; not libraries.  It certainly could be argued that the San Diego Public Library was founded “by a group of authoritarian-elitists who saw it first as a means of controlling and directing the behavior of their less fortunate fellows – especially the new immigrants” (Harris), if one looked only to the five white men that made up the original Library Trustees and reviewed their individual roles in early San Diego History.  However, that view would negate the influence of the Wednesday Club, and especially the guiding hand of Lydia Horton, in the creation of the San Diego Public Library.  In the end, it was a coalescence of government, business and community that created the San Diego Public Library. 

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