How Cool Are Libraries? California's Library System Explained

PUBLISHED JUN 8, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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California's library system dates back 171 years.

California's library system dates back 171 years.   Matthew Field / Wikimedia Commons   GNU Free Documentation License

In 1849, just three years after 250 United States Marines and seamen landed on the shores of Monterey and quickly proceeded to raise the American flag claiming the Mexican town as U.S. territory — and one year after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo made all of Alta (that is, upper) California part of the U.S. — several prominent Monterey citizens started to plan for a new institution in the town. They would create what became California’s first public library.

The following year, after funding the library by selling shares to mostly wealthy townsfolk at $32 apiece (about a thousand bucks in today’s money), the library had acquired about 900 fiction, nonfiction, and poetry books as well as troves of government documents and maps. That was also the year California was named the 31st state in the union. 

Going on 171 years later, according to the California State Library, the state has 1,128 public libraries, employing nearly 18,000 people and with collections housing close to 100 million items, which these days include not only books, maps, and documents, but DVDs, CDs and ebooks along with other digital-only materials available to be borrowed by the California public. 

Those libraries also operate thousands of programs for the public, almost 140,000 for adults and over 250,000 for kids in 2018-2019 alone, with 10.6 million people attending public library programming in that span.

Public libraries are the purest example of democracy in action, arising straight from the Enlightenment, when 18th-century Europe was swept by the radical idea that rational thinking, fueled by science, knowledge, and logic, held the key to bettering the human condition. According to Princeton University librarian Wayne Bivens-Tatum (author of the 2012 book Libraries and the Enlightenment) the core idea of the Enlightenment — that the free flow of knowledge builds a more perfect society — provided “the philosophical foundation for modern American libraries.”

European Enlightenment ideas were also the formative influence on America’s Founding Fathers, so it is not surprising that one of those founders, Benjamin Franklin, was also the founder of America’s first library. In 1731, still 45 years before American independence, Franklin began raising funds for a subscription library, a type of library popular in Europe, and requiring a monthly fee for members. Non-members could also borrow books from The Library Company, as Franklin christened it. They needed only to offer some form of collateral, guaranteeing the book would be returned. 

In another innovation, Franklin stocked the library with books published in English. At the time, it was de rigueur for European libraries to stock only works in Latin.

Franklin was also instrumental in creating the country’s first free, public library. Shortly before his death in 1790 at age 84, Franklin donated a trove of books to the not-coincidentally named town of Franklin, Massachusetts, which used them to initiate its own library. 

Not until 43 years later, however, would a U.S. town — Peterborough, New Hampshire — think to fund a public library with money from its own taxpayers. Another 19 years after that, in 1853, the Boston Public Library opened its 16,000-volume collection for free lending to any Massachusetts resident, making the BPL the first large municipal library in the country.

Today, there are 9,057 public libraries throughout the United States. Along with 3,094 college and university libraries, plus 98,460 school libraries and a smattering of military and government libraries, Americans now have access to books and other knowledge-bearing materials at 116,867 library facilities in the 50 states and five territories. 

Libraries are, in many ways, the lifeblood of a free country. That Enlightenment idea survives even today. But just barely. Libraries all-too-often find themselves under attack, both from censors, and from government officials wielding the scythe of budget cuts.

In 2019, the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom recorded 377 “challenges” to books in libraries, and in school curriculums, targeting 566 books. Among the most frequent targets of censorship attempts were the Harry Potter series, Margaret Atwood’s seminal work of feminist science fiction A Handmaid’s Tale, and A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, a children’s book about a gay rabbit by comedy writer Jill Twiss, who writes for the HBO program Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

Without minimizing the threat of censorship, however, it may be accurate to say that budget cuts pose the most imminent danger to the public library system. At the height of a California fiscal crisis in 2011, then-Governor Jerry Brown put together a budget that eliminated state funding for public libraries completely. 

Ultimately, the California Library Association (CLA) was able to squeeze $4.7 million out of Brown, enough to maintain the “basic integrity” of library services, and to secure the $12.5 million in federal corresponding funds used for such services as the Braille and Talking Books program.

As the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 and 2021 dragged on, dragging down California’s economy with it, Governor Gavin Newsom took a very different approach toward library funding. According to the CLA, Newsom in January proposed adding $10 million in library funding to the budget because libraries, he said, would play an important role helping the state recover from the pandemic disaster.

The money would go toward developing out-of-school learning programs at a time when students throughout the state were forced to use “distance learning” via the internet to keep up with schoolwork — and more than a million had no internet connectivity. The increased funds also go to meal programs for kids, with “grab ‘n’ go” meals delivered through libraries, as well as bringing library services to those who cannot get to the physical library during the pandemic.

As for the Monterey Public Library, it moved into a new, expanded facility in the 1950s, and now offers library services online as well, bringing the state’s first public library well into the 21st century.

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