The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1984, Volume 30, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Turning the Pages: San Diego Public Library History, 1882 – 1982. By Clara E. Breed. San Diego: Friends of the San Diego Public Library, 1983. Illustrations. Index. 236 pages. $15.00.

Reviewed by Elizabeth C. MacPhail, author of books and articles on San Diego history, including The Story of New San Diego and its Founder, Alonzo E. Horton (2nd ed., 1979) and Kate Sessions: Pioneer Horticulturist (1976).

This interesting and informative history of San Diego’s Public Library was written by the one best qualified to do so. Clara Breed served the Library for 42 years, first as the Children’s Librarian and then as City Librarian. In the introduction by Lawrence Clark Powell, he says: “She was probably the most consistently successful of the major City Librarians of California in her time, a very model of administrative skill, tact and vision.”

We learn that the first libraries in California were the books brought by the Franciscan Padres, and included not only religious books, but ones on agriculture, medicine and architecture. The first attempt at founding a public library in San Diego was in 1870 when the Horton Library Association was formed in anticipation of receiving a gift of 1000 books from Alonzo E. Horton. When the Association found that Horton expected to be paid for the books, it disbanded.

It was not until 1882 that the city by Ordinance authorized a City Library, and a small tax was levied for its support. Five Trustees were elected and sought donations of books. The “library” was open only a few hours a day and borrowers had to show they were property owners or deposit the price of the book. The library was moved from pillar to post during its first years, depending on the state of its coffers, until finally in 1898 it was located in the Keating Building, Fifth & F Street. Lydia Horton, wife of Alonzo Horton, was a member of the Board of Trustees and wrote to Andrew Carnegie asking him to finance a library building for San Diego. The result was a gift of $60,000 which built the beautiful little Carnegie Library on E Street, on a half block acquired by the city for $17,000. It opened in 1902 with 15,000 books and a Children’s Room, suggested by Mrs. Horton.

The first professionally trained librarian was Miss Althea Warren, employed in 1916 at a salary of $100.00 a month. With the growth of the city more space was needed and a nearby building was rented for additional space. Miss Warren left in 1926 and was succeeded by Miss Cornelia Plaister who did much to publicize the library and its need for more space, pointing out that it was built during horse and buggy days for a population of 17,000.

In 1928 Clara E. Breed, a trained professional Children’s Librarian, had joined the staff, and when Cornelia Plaister died in 1946 Miss Breed succeeded her as City Librarian.

After several library bond issues had failed in the past, mainly because of disputes over a site, one finally passed in 1949, specifying the new library be built on its present site, even though by then it was obvious that more ground was needed. The present building, covering the entire half block, opened June 28, 1954. By 1970 every empty space in the building had been utilized. Clara Breed, after serving the library well for 42 years and “tired of fighting the Battle of the Budget”, retired that year. She has been followed by Marco G. Thorne, Kenneth Wilson and William W. Sannwald, the present City Librarian.

“Turning the Pages” will be the definitive history of the library for years to come. Although the casual reader may find it to be a bit more than he wanted to know, the history and library buffs will love it. Historians will appreciate the chronology, names of all members of the Board of Trustees and Librarians, with dates of tenure, and statistics on the growth of the library.

Designed by Ward Ritchie, and printed in hard cover in a limited edition of only one thousand, the book should sell fast and then become a collector’s item. All profits go to benefit the library.

Thank you, Clara, for a job well done!