Early American libraries were “subscription and shareholding” libraries.  Such libraries were available only to those who could afford to pay fees to join and access the library.  Also known as social libraries, they were “nothing more than a voluntary association of individuals who had contributed money toward a common fund to be used for the purchase of books” (Shera, 1965).  Benjamin Franklin founded one of the most famous subscription libraries in Philadelphia, an outgrowth of the Junto literary society (Wiley, 1918, Libraries, Modern).  On the heels of subscription libraries were athenæums, mercantile and apprentice libraries.  In these libraries, the “fees were low, and social consideration played little part in the selection of their clientele” (id).  Founded in 1807, the Boston Athenæum was one of the earliest such organizations.  It is still in operation.  

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The majority of these organizations were on the east coast.  The Boston Athenæum had been in operation for 43 years before the State of California was even admitted to the Union.  

In 1870, twenty years after California became a state, the population of San Diego was 2,300.  The first effort to create a library in San Diego began on January 1, 1869.  However, “the poverty of the times and the inability of pioneers in the movement to agree,” caused the burgeoning library effort to be factionalized.  People met separately in “meager quarters, with reading material limited to newspapers and magazines received from second-hand subscribers” (Hensley, 1958).  San Diego’s early library associations were subscription libraries, charging initiation fees and regular dues from participating members.  

Image 2: San Diego 1870

In 1870, two of San Diego’s founding fathers, Alonzo E. Horton  and Hubert H. Bancroft, a local historian and author, agreed that Horton would sell a block of real estate to Bancroft in exchange for 1000 assorted books (id.).  The books that Horton received were to seed the San Diego library.  Alonzo Erastus Horton was born in Connecticut and gradually moved westward through a succession of successful business ventures.   

Image 3: Alonzo E. Horton

He founded Hortonville, Wisconsin in 1848 before moving west with the gold rush.  In 1862, Horton settled comfortably in San Francisco running a furniture and household goods store.  In 1867, Horton sold everything and moved to San Diego.  He bought 960 acres for $0.275 per acre.  The area became known as “Horton’s Addition.”  Horton’s Addition connected “Old Town” of San Diego with “New San Diego” which was developed by Horton.  New San Diego was much closer to the Pacific Ocean than was inland Old Town San Diego.  Horton immediately constructed a wharf and arranged for trade ships to stop in San Diego.  In addition to  being an original library founder, Horton also founded San Diego’s first Unitarian Church, the city council, and was instrumental in bringing a railroad and newspaper to San Diego (San Diego Historical Society, San Diego Biographies, Alonzo Erastus Horton).  Horton is known as the “father of San Diego.” 

On January 24, 1870, the first free library meeting was assembled at the Baptist Church in San Diego.  

Image 4: Old Baptist Church 1869

 Because everyone believed that Horton was going to donate the 1000 books to the cause, the new library was named for him:  Horton Free Library Association (Smythe, 1908).   The newly formed Horton Free Library Association had 36 founding members who each paid $2.50 initiation fees and three months’ advance dues at 50 cents per month.  Life time memberships were available for $100.  The association voted in officers and trustees; Horton was elected as a trustee  (Hensley).  

Three days later, at the second meeting of the Horton Free Library Association, Horton clarified his gift of books – he would donate half of the volumes and the association would purchase the other half of the volumes from him for $1,000 (Hensley).  The association members were outraged.  They had understood that Horton’s gift was “with no strings attached.”  In disgust, the Horton Free Library Association was dissolved.  Moments later, the San Diego Library Association was formed.  All of the officers and trustees of the Horton Free Library Association were re-elected, with the exception of Horton, who was ousted (Henley).  Shortly thereafter, the local newspaper reported that the “Library is a fixed fact without the aid the Mr. Horton’s name.  A course of lectures will shortly be delivered, and a calico masquerade held in aid of the institution.  Books will be contributed  by several citizens and in a very short time the rooms will be opened” (Evans, 1962, quoting San Diego Union, 1879, February 24). 

Ousted by the library association, Horton put his books in a small room adjoining the Horton Bank Building.  He referred to the room as his “private library” and invited the public to use this books (Henley).   

Image 5: Horton's Private Library

In 1872, two blocks away from Horton’s private library, some of the founders of the San Diego Library Association, formed the San Diego Free Reading Room Association.  The purpose of the reading room was to “provide a free reading room where periodicals could be found, until such time as the library could be put upon a working basis” (Smythe).  The reading room was opened 12 hours a day, from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. (id.)   During this period the San Diego Library Association and the San Diego Free Reading Room Association discussed merging their organizations.  However, nothing ever came of it and by 1873, the activity of San Diego Library Association ended  (Hensley).   

Eventually, Horton tired of maintaining his private library.  During a fund raising concert for the San Diego Free Reading Room Association in March 1873, Horton donated the books that “had been the bone of contention”  (Smythe).  After ousting him three years early, the “Association voted him its hearty thanks” (Henley). 

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