When the Carnegie Library opened, “it included two of the latest innovations—open shelves, so that people could help themselves to books instead of asking a librarian to unlock a glass case, and a Children’s Room” (Breed, 1970).  The Children’s Room was on the first floor of the library.    

Image 30: Children's Room

Additionally, the library began collecting California material and today has a vast special collection housed in the “California Room” – in fact, hanging on the wall in the California Room is a small painting by Lydia Horton.   

Image 31: Reference Room

Also on the first floor of the library was the reference room.  In the basement of the library, were the staff workrooms.  Only a few photographs exist of the basement work rooms:    

Image 33: Art Department

By 1912, only 10 years after the library had opened, San Diego “had outgrown the Carnegie building, and plans for a larger structure were discussed” (San Diego Public Library, 1954, June).  Under the direction of Althea Warren, the library’s “first trained librarian,” the library did three things to combat the lack of space:  1) developed and expanded branch libraries; 2) sought additional funding from the Carnegie Corporation; and 3) rented annexes.  In 1922, while City Librarian, Warren also served as the President of the California Library Association.  (California Library Association, 2009).  Additionally, Warren was one of the first to suggest that the Carnegie library may have to be razed to build a new library.  In a 1920 letter to the Carnegie Corporation, Warren asked “If it is found necessary to tear down the present main building, to construct an adequate new one, under what conditions would the Corporation consent to this demolition of a Carnegie gift?”  (Warren, A. to J. Bertram September 7, 1920).    

In 1898, a small library was opened in La Jolla, California.  In 1908, librarian Hannah Davison recommended the establishment of branch libraries, particularly, the annexation of the La Jolla library (California State Library, 1908, October, News Notes on California Libraries).  In 1910, it became the first branch of the San Diego Public Library.  By 1917, six other branches were founded – some only had 50 square feet and were housed in rented rooms, in public schools, and the Marston’s branch was housed in the Marston Department, owned by library trustee George Marston (San Diego Public Library, 1917, Data Concerning the San Diego Public Library Branches for the Carnegie Corporation).   

San Diego had been “waging a campaign for a new main library or substantial expansion of the existing one since 1916 . . . [and] repeated bond measures failed (Shaw, 2007).  In desperate need of space and money, the City Librarian (the title of the head librarian at the San Diego Free Public Library), wrote to the Carnegie Corporation.  City Librarian Warren sought money for library branches, as well as money to either expand the Carnegie Library or to build a completely new library.  In one of her many pleas to the Carnegie Corporation, Warren explained the situation:    

When the present central building was given by Mr. Carnegie in 1900, the city had a population of 17,700, while 74,682 is reported in the U.S. census of 1920.  Use of the library has grown even faster than the town, the circulation in 1919 being seven and one-half times larger than in 1900.  Our average last year was 8 books to each inhabitant.  (Warren, 1920, September 7).   

Bertram, Carnegie’s secretary, responded to Warren’s letter:   

Your letter of September 7th has been received.  I am sorry that there is nothing to add to my letters of July 14, 1919 and January 29, 1919 to Mrs. Mabel E. O’Farrell and Mr. E.E. Hendee, respectively.  I am quite unable to foretell when the Trustees of this Corporation will resume library work, or under what conditions” (Bertram, J. to A. Warren September 15, 1920).   

Unfortunately for San Diego, Carnegie stopped making donations to build libraries. In 1916, Carnegie received a report from Dr. Alvin Johnson, an economics professor that changed the course of Carnegie’s library giving.  Dr. Johnson visited over 100 Carnegie libraries and determined that to be truly effective libraries, trained professional librarians were needed.  Accordingly, after 1919 all of Carnegie’s financial support was directed to library education, rather than library construction (Brison, 2005).    

With no ability to raise money for a new library either through city bonds issues or donations, the library was able to relieve some of the overcrowding by   

Image 34: Workroom in Federal Building Annex

  “renting annexes near the main library to house departments such as Cataloging, the Children’s Room, and the Newspaper and Periodicals Reading Room, but these were meant to be temporary measures” (Shaw).  The result was that “half of our annual book fund has had to be spent for rent” (San Diego Public Library, 1923, October 8, Letter to Carnegie Corporation).    

In 1922, “San Diego had the highest per capita use of any library in the United States,” yet every attempt to “pass a bond issue for a new main library” failed (Breed, 1970).  By 1923, San Diego Public Library was again writing to the Carnegie Corporation out of desperation:   

Although the Trustees of the San Diego Public Library realize that only in cases of extreme urgency is the Carnegie Corporation considering gifts to libraries, our equipment and resources have been for the last eight years so utterly inadequate to the needs of our city that we beg to put our case before you (San Diego Public Library to H.S. Pritchett [Carnegie Corporation], October 8, 1923).   


The next City Librarian, Cornelia Plaister, was hired in 1926 and remained in her position for twenty years.  When Miss Plaister arrived, “she determined that a bond issue for a new library would never pass unless the voting public had a greater understanding of the library’s needs. Consequently she took immediate steps to increase publicity about the Library, bombarding local newspapers and radio stations with frequent news releases about library services, accepting speaking engagements anywhere and everywhere, and encouraging the staff to become more visible as speakers and book reviewers” (Shaw).  It was Plaister’s mission to create a new central library for San Diego.   

Plaister never realized her mission.  However, under her stewardship, permanent branch buildings were constructed and the Carnegie library “was enlarged by flooring over the light well, converting the former art gallery into a reference room, and eliminating one stairway in order to create a minuscule librarian’s office”  (Breed, 1970).  The library continued to rent annexes to relieve the overcrowding.  “By 1934  circulation had soared to one-an-a-half million books.  And in 1937 another bond issue failed”  (id.).  During this period, Plaister, like her predecessor Althea Warren, served as President of the California Library Association (California Library Association, 2009).   

In 1940, the San Diego City Council “set aside $100,000 for construction of a new wing on the old [Carnegie] building”  (Breed, 1970).  During World War II, the “main branch of the San Diego Public Library was officially designated by the American Library Association as a War Information Center.  Originally the center was set up on the lawn of the library, but it was soon moved into the lobby” (Shaw).  During the war years, the library had a the high turnover of staff members.   There were few professional librarians at the time and most of the “routine library work was done by staff members, almost all of whom were women. For the first time women were being offered jobs in the defense industry with pay equal to that of men, so they were leaving traditional, lower-paid women’s work in droves. No sooner would the library hire and train replacements than they, too, would leave, either for higher-paying jobs or because fulltime work did not suit them after all” (Shaw, 2007).   


Plaister died in 1946 without realizing a new central library for San Diego.  Her successor as City Librarian was Clara Breed, who has authored a number of pieces on the history of the San Diego Public Library.  Breed wrote of Plaister:  “The thrust of Miss Plaister’s determination to secure a new Central Library building continued after her death and helped to pass a two million dollar bond issue for Central and branches in 1949” (Breed, 1970).  The San Diego Public Library publicity machine was in place and campaigning publicly for a new central library.  In 1949, Prop. A, the “Library Bond Issue,” was on the November ballot.  In campaign ephemera, the proponents of Prop A detailed the deficiencies of the “little old building,” extolled the benefits to the taxpayers – “no money will be need to be spend to buy land for the Main Library, as the present site is already owned by the City” – and appealed for funding “for your children’s future!” (Vote “YES” on Prop. “A,” 1949).  Rather than appreciate and preserve the historical 1902 San Diego Carnegie library building, the proponents of Prop. A described the fate of Carnegie library “the old, over-crowded Main Library Building at 8th and E will be replaced with a larger modern building on the same site” (id.).  The 1949 Library Bond Issue passed, and in “1952 the Carnegie Building was razed, to make room for the construction of the new building, and the central library was moved to temporary quarters in Balboa Park” (San Diego Public Library, 1954, June, Background Data – New Central Library Building San Diego Public Library).   

Unfortunately, the destruction of the Carnegie library in San Diego was a common fate of many of the Carnegie libraries.  Over 200 Carnegie libraries have been demolished. There has been a concerted effort for over two decade by George S. Bobinski, Dean Emeritus of State University of New York at Buffalo School of Information and Library Studies and Carnegie library historian, to preserve Carnegie libraries (Bobinski, 1990).  

(Bobinski, 1990)

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