The Journal of San Diego History
January 1955, Volume 1, Number 1

By Herbert C. Hensley

My first memories of our public library date from 1888 or 1889,
when it occupied the fourth floor of the old Consolidated Bank building,
at Fifth and G Streets, later to become the city hall. For a time an elderly
man with a reddish beard turning gray was in charge, but a little later was
succeeded by Miss Lou Younkin, who remained the librarian for several years.

I believe the movement for a “free reading-room” fairly got under way in April 1881, after several false starts, at a meeting at Judge M. A. Luce’s house It was decided to solicit subscriptions from the general public and also to ask the town trustees to include in the tax-levy one unit in every dollar as a fund toward establishment of the institution.

In July, 1882, the California-Southern Railroad Company arranged an excursion over its line and offered to donate one-fourth of the proceeds from the sale of tickets to the library fund. There were from 1,800 to 2,000 books in circulation by 1888, in which year the library board was able to purchase five hundred additional volumes.

Miss Younkin’s administration was marked by vigor and enterprise. She felt that matters had got rather out of hand during the incumbency of her easy-going predecessor (which they manifestly had) and took firm measures. Previously, patrons had helped themselves from the shelves and (declared Miss Younkin roundly) frequently took books home without first bothering to present them at the desk for record; they put them back in the wrong places on the shelves, they often defaced or tore them and sometimes — in plain language — they stole them. So she roped off the stack-tiers (covering the rope, nicely with white cloth) and made up a catalogue in long-hand, only the one copy of which was for a time available. It lay on a chair and had to be referred to in turn, but later there were printed lists conveniently accessible to everybody.

This whole proceeding irked some persons considerably, and (as was the fashion in those times) they wrote to the editor of their newspaper intemperate complaints about it; whereupon the library trustees ordered removal of the rope. But, just the same, it wasn’t long before there was a grill all round the book-shelves, and if you wanted a book you had to take it “sight-unseen” by writing its number on a slip of paper and presenting the memo at the desk. You prudently noted down a few alternatives, just in case your main choice wasn’t in. The catalog, as first printed, was a thin, paper-bound booklet, with the books listed in the front part by their numbers, and in the back half by title, alphabetically.

Also, around 1888 and 1889, there were the more important magazines laid about on tables. We small boys used to be on hand close outside the door, when it was opened at 7 o’clock in the evening. (The library was open, I think, during certain hours of the afternoon; but we had too many other matters in hand to patronize it then.) On the instant that door swung back we kids would rush at top speed to those tables and take possession of Puck, Judge, and Life (the latter a much smaller publication than the present Life and wholly dedicated to humor, although of not quite such a robust character as the other two I have mentioned) passing them from one of us to the other and snickering and giggling over them in a manner which, I don’t doubt, disgusted our elders. There were also Harper’s Weekly, Frank Leslie, The Youth’s Companion, St. Nicholas, and some other periodicals, all, very likely, preempted by some small boys, while adults might have to spend a period of glaring and fuming and waiting our pleasure. After we were done with that business, we took out some book and went home-and the old fellows could settle down and get some peace.

This sort of thing had “gone down” with the mild-mannered old man-librarian, but Miss Younkin immediately disapproved. She made us walk in decorously, so that we had practically no advantage over our elders any more.