143 years of Oakland Public Library History

An early library card, belonging to Professor J.G. Lemmon.
An early library card belonging to Professor J.G. Lemmon. Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

November 7, 1878 is the closest to a "birthday" the Oakland Public Library has, although there's been some very understandable confusion about the date even within the library. The 1878 date marks the opening of our library as a taxpayer-funded institution open to all residents - which sounds pretty similar to the library we know and love today. However, there were private libraries in Oakland before 1878 that were open to dues-paying members. Those included the Oakland Library Association, established in 1868, which evolved into the city-run agency. The Oakland Public Library celebrated its centennial in both 1968 and in 1978. The "correct" date is a matter of opinion, but having two birthdays just means there are more opportunities to celebrate. 

So, in celebration of 143ish years, here are some highlights of library history.  

The Oakland Library Association was organized on March 5, 1868. Its first president was Samuel Merritt. The Rogers Free Library Act of 1878 allowed California cities to levy taxes for the support of public libraries for the first time. After the state legislature passed the Rogers Act in March of 1878, the Trustees of the Oakland Library Association acted quickly to transfer all of its assets - building, books, furniture, and librarian - to the city of Oakland. And so, on November 7, 1878, the Oakland Library Association was re-born as the Oakland Free Library. It was the second public library in California, after Eureka. 

Main Libraries

When the library started the Main Library was the only library. The first Main Library was at 14th and San Pablo. The building was later moved to the north side of 14th Street, facing Washington, on the site of the present City Hall. This building served as the Main Library until 1902.

The first Main Library building, at its second location, 14th St and Washington. 
The first Main Library building, at its second location, 14th St and Washington. Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

In 1902 the original Main Library building was replaced by the magnificent Carnegie-funded library building at 14th Street and Grove (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Way). This building served as the Main Library until 1951. After the current Main opened the building housed the Charles S. Greene Branch. It is now the home of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO).

The Circulating Room of the Oakland Free Library's second Main Library building in 1904.
The Circulating Room of the Oakland Free Library's second Main Library building in 1904. Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.
The Shakespeare Corner in the Children's Room at the second Main Library. The furniture is now in the Oakland History Center.
The Shakespeare Corner in the Children's Room at the second Main Library. The bench and chair are now in the Oakland History Center. Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.
department in the Main Library at 14th and Grove, 1939.
The reference department in the second Main Library building, 1939. Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

The present Main Library, which occupies the block bounded by 14th and 13th Streets and Oak and Madison, opened in 1951.

A sixth grade class from Auditorium Village School visting the Children's Room at the third Main Library in 1954. 
A sixth grade class from Auditorium Village School visting the Children's Room at the third Main Library in 1954. Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Branch Libraries

The precursors of our modern branches began in 1878 with Reading Rooms in West and East Oakland under the sponsorship of the Oakland Free Library. These reading rooms provided no circulating books, but provided newspapers and magazines to be read on-site. Branches expanded under City Librarian Charles Greene (1899-1926) to cover all areas of the city. During this period, branch libraries adopted the service model that we recognize today. 

Early Librarians

Portrait of Ina Coolbrith, around 1871
Ina Coolbrith, about 1871. Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Henry F. Peterson.
Henry F. Peterson. Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Charles S. Greene, 1904.
Charles S. Greene, 1904. Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

The Oakland Free Library was personified in its earliest years by the first City Librarian, Ina Donna Coolbrith, who was hired as a librarian for the Oakland Library Association in 1874. The role of City Librarian would be equivalent to today's Director of Library Services - the head of the library. Coolbrith was a beloved figure in the community, often remembered today as a mentor to young Jack London and Isadora Duncan, and as a friend of Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, and Ambrose Bierce. She was also a well-known poet who later became California's first Poet Laureate. To find our more about the fascinating life of Ina Coolbrith, check out Aleta George's biography Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California's First Poet Laureate. We also have Coolbrith's own poetry and scrapbooks (see here) in our collection in the Oakland History Center. 

In 1893 Coolbrith was succeeded by her first assistant (and her nephew), Henry F. Peterson, in spite of protest from the community. Peterson hired Frederick Irons Bamford, the city's first reference librarian, in 1895. Bamford established Oakland's first reference collection.

Frederick D. Bamford and assisstants.
Associate Librarian Frederick D. Bamford and assistants, including Miss Stetson of cataloging at far right. Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Charles S. Greene, poet and former editor of the Overland Monthly, was hired as the third City Librarian in 1899 and served the city until 1926. We have several books of his poetry (and also library history) here in the Oakland History Center.  

Library History Timeline 

Some highlights of the library's history since 1878.

1878-1900

  • Oakland Free Library opens as a municipal agency, November 7, 1878
  • Poet Ina D. Coolbrith appointed as Oakland's first City Librarian
  • First branch library, the West Oakland Reading Room, is established, 1878
  • Henry F. Peterson named City Librarian, 1893
  • First card catalog, 1890s
  • Construction is begun on a new Main Library, endowed by Andrew Carnegie, at 14th Street & Grove Street (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Way), 1899
  • Alden Branch Library, now Temescal, is established, 1899
  • Golden Gate Branch Library is established, 1899
  • Charles S. Greene appointed City Librarian, 1899

1901-1910

  • New Main Library opens at 14th Street & Grove Street, June 30, 1902
  • Oakland hosts the first meeting of the California Library Association, 1903
  • Service for children begins when the Children's Room in the Oakland Main Library opens with Tiffany-made furnishings, 1904

1911-1920

  • Telephone reference service is initiated, 1911
  • Elmhurst & Melrose Branch libraries are established, 1911
  • Piedmont Branch Library is established, 1912
  • Dimond Branch Library is established, 1915
  • Melrose Branch Library occupies its current Carnegie-endowed building, 1916
  • Oakland Public Library participates in a book drive for soldiers during WWI, 1917
  • Golden Gate Branch Library occupies its current Carnegie-endowed building, 1918 
  • Temescal Branch Library occupies its current Carnegie-endowed building, 1918
  • Rockridge Branch Library is established, 1919

1921-1930

  • Librarian Mabel Thomas starts the California Collection (later the California Room) at the Main Library, 1921
  • John B. Kaiser appointed City Librarian, 1927
  • Lakeview Branch Library is established, 1930
  • Montclair Branch Library is established, 1930

1931-1940

  • Workers from the federal Works Projects Administration accomplish major indexing and historical projects for the Oakland Public Library, including the first comprehensive history of the city
  • Piedmont Branch Library occupies its current location, 1932
  • Oakland voters reject a bond proposition to fund construction of a new Main Library, 1933

1941-1950

  • Peter T. Conmy is appointed City Librarian, 1943
  • Eastmont Branch Library is established, 1945
  • Bond measure passed to finance construction of a new Main Library and new buildings to house the Elmhurst and Lakeview branch libraries, 1945
  • New Elmhurst Branch Library moves to its current location, 1949
  • Lakeview Branch Library moves to its current location, 1949
  • Friends of the Oakland Public Library is formed, 1950

1951-1960

  • Adult education programs are expanded
  • The Oakland Main Library occupies its current location at 14th and Oak Streets, 1951
  • The California Room (now the Oakland History Center) is founded, 1951
  • Brookfield Branch Library is established, 1957

1961-1970

  • Bookmobile service begins, 1965
  • The Latin American Branch (now César E. Chávez Branch) Library, the first branch devoted to serving the Spanish-speaking community in the U.S., is established, 1966
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Branch is established, 1970
  • William H. Brett appointed City Librarian, 1970

1971-1980

  • Oakland Public Library establishes special services for the blind, visually impaired and deaf
  • Oakland Public Library joins BARC (Bay Area Reference Center), which provides supplemental reference services
  • Project Outreach to serve senior citizens is established, 1973
  • Lelia White appointed Library Director, 1976
  • Asian Branch Library is established, 1976
  • New West Oakland Branch Library opens, 1977
  • Oakland Public Library celebrates its centennial, 1978
  • Oakland Public Library Association is formed, 1978
  • BALIS (Bay Area Library and Information Service), a cooperative network of Bay Area libraries, is established with Oakland Public Library as a charter member, 1978
  • Cityline is established, 1978
  • The California Room becomes the Oakland History Room, narrowing its focus to East Bay history, 1978
  • American Indian Library Service is established, 1979
  • Dimond Branch Library moves to its current location, 1980

1981-2000

  • Eastmont Branch Library moves to Eastmont Mall, 1983
  • Second Start Adult Literacy Program is launched, 1984
  • Rockridge Branch Library moves to Birch Court, 1987
  • Card catalog and procedures for cataloging and circulation are computerized, 1989
  • Martín J. Gomez is appointed Director of Library Services, 1990

1991-2000

  • New Brookfield Branch Library opens, 1992
  • Oakland voters pass Measure O, the Library Services Retention and Enhancement Act, to provide supplemental financial support for the Oakland Public Library, June 7, 1994
  • Northern California Center for African American History and Life merges with the Oakland Public Library and is renamed the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO), 1994
  • PASS! (Partners Achieving School Success) homework centers are launched, 1994
  • A 15-year Strategic Plan, "A Library for the 21st Century," is published, 1995
  • New Asian Branch Library opens, 1995
  • Oakland Public Library Foundation is incorporated, 1995
  • Oakland Public Library begins providing Internet access to the public, 1995
  • Books for Wider Horizons, a partnership with the City's Head Start program, is launched, 1995
  • Business Information Center is established, 1995
  • Billy Dancy is appointed as Director of Library Services, 1996
  • New Rockridge Branch Library opens, 1996
  • Oakland voters approve Measure I, a general obligation bond, which includes funding to seismically retrofit several Carnegie libraries, 1996
  • Library begins extended services for patrons with disabilities, 1997
  • First teenaged member, Esther Fuentes-Garcia, appointed to the Oakland Public Library Commission, 1997
  • New Eastmont Branch Library opens, 1998
  • Renovations completed at Temescal Branch Library, 1999
  • Tool lending begins at Temescal Branch Library, 1999
  • Renovation and expansion of Montclair Branch Library's Children Room completed, 1999
  • Cityline is transformed into the Oaklanders' Assistance Center and becomes part of the Mayor's Office 1999
  • Renovations completed at Melrose Branch Library, 2000
  • Renovations completed at Golden Gate Branch Library, 2000
  • Carmen Martinez appointed Director of Library Services, 2000

2001-2010

  • Oakland Main Library celebrates its Golden Jubilee, 2001
  • Books in electronic format (e-books) are offered via the Internet, 2001
  • The African American Museum & Library at Oakland opens in the renovated Charles Greene building (the old main library), 2002
  • Reference service via electronic mail and live chat begins, 2002
  • TeenZone is created in the Main Library, 2002
  • Oakland Public Library celebrates its 125th anniversary, 2003
  • New César Chávez Branch Library opens in Fruitvale Transit Village, 2004
  • Voters approve the Library Services Retention and Enhancement Act (Measure Q), 2004
  • First digitized materials from the Oakland History Center are made available online, 2006 

2011-2020

  • 81st Avenue Branch Library opens, 2011
  • New Piedmont Branch Library opens, 2012
  • Gerry Garzon appointed Director of Library Services, 2013
  • Toy lending begins, 2015
  • Renovation of Dimond Branch Library completed, 2017
  • Voters approve the Oakland Public Library Preservation Act (Measure D), leading to expansion of library hours, 2018
  • Melrose, Golden Gate, and Temescal Branches celebrate their 100th birthdays, 2018
  • Former Miller Avenue Branch building destroyed by fire, 2018
  • Jamie Turbak appointed Director of Library Services, 2019
  • Overdue fines are eliminated for all materials (excluding tools), 2019 
  • Oakland History Room renamed Oakland History Center, 2019 
  • Library provides curbside, telephone, and e-mail services for several months as all city buildings are closed to the public during COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, 2020

This blog post was adapted from materials compiled by William Sturm and Steve Lavoie, both former Oakland History Center librarians.

For even more library history, visit the Oakland History Center, where we keep an extensive Library Archive of all types of materials relating to Oakland Public Library's history. 

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