Carnegie Library

History of Fresno County Public Library

The Years

    • On November 27, 1891, the Fresno (City) Board of Trustees began library service in Fresno County by appointing a five-member library board, using an eleven-year State of California enabling act. Under this act, the new library board was charged with planning and operating a tax-supported city library. Unfortunately, no tax money was available. However, the board was able to raise ninety-two dollars for supplies along with additional money to rent rooms in a new building at Fresno and “I” streets.

      The new library opened its doors on February 1, 1892. A subscription fee of five dollars per month was charged for people wanting to use the facility. User fees abounded during this period and were not unusual. This ultimately led to the “free library” concept which explains why the official name is “Fresno County Public Library”. A year later, on February 3, 1893, the library board decided to do away with the fee and open the library doors to anyone “of good moral character”. The first City Librarian was Mrs. E. J. Latimer.

      Library services expanded in May 1893, when the board extended library privileges to county residents living within six miles of the library, but at a cost of three dollars per family or one dollar and 25 cents for an individual. In 1896 this policy was changed, so any county resident who paid city taxes and passed a character test could become a library patron.

      In 1898 the library moved to the second floor of the Risley Building, located at Van Ness and Mariposa streets in Fresno. Unfortunately Mrs. Latimer was no longer with the library because of a funding crisis between, 1895-96.

      Fresno was not the only City in the County progressive enough to start a public library. As early as 1888 Selma had founded a public reading room kept alive primarily through the efforts of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In Reedley, Mrs. Fayette Mitcheltree volunteered to run a library. The library began in a corner of her husband’s office at the Ledger, one of Reedley’s two newspapers. Collection development was done through “book socials” where the entrance fee was one or more books.

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    • The Laton Library building was dedicated in the spring of 1904 and has served the public ever since, making it one of California’s oldest libraries operating continuously in the same location.

      The Coalinga Women’s Improvement Club founded the Coalinga Public Library in 1905. The club felt the oil workers needed a place to improve their minds.

      The “county circulating library plan” was passed into law in 1909. This law allowed California counties to enter into contract with a city library to extend services to county residents. The city library would thus become free to county residents, and a system of deposit stations would be set up throughout the county. On March 10, 1910 the library trustees executed a contract with the County Board of Supervisors and appointed Miss Jean D. Baird, then the City Librarian, to become the first County Librarian with Miss Sarah E. McCardle as first assistant. Organizationally, the County Library began as a department within the Fresno County Public Library.

      Within seven months of the establishment of the County Department, there were 14 county library branches. Jean Baird served until December 10, 1910, and was replaced by Sarah McCardle effective January 1, 1911. Sarah McCardle was the daughter of a Fresno County pioneer family that came by wagon to California in the late 1850s. She was the second Fresno County Librarian, having joined the staff of the Fresno County Public Library in 1908.

      Later in 1911 the state passed a second county library law enabling the county libraries to operate independently of the city libraries with which they had contracted for service. Thus, for the first time, the Fresno County Free Library became a separate legal entity from the City Library.

      Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish immigrant who made a fortune as an American industrialist. He gave millions of dollars to communities throughout the country for the construction of libraries. In 1901 Andrew Carnegie gave $30,000 to the City of Fresno for a library building, provided that the City would tax itself $3,000 a year to support the facility. The City agreed, and land at 1330 Broadway Street was donated as a site for the new building. The cornerstone was laid on December 8, 1902, and construction was completed on April 2, 1904.

      About this time, other Fresno County cities were creating library services. Mr. Carnegie also gave Selma $6,000 for a new library. The cornerstone was laid on September 12, 1905, and the building was occupied on December 30, 1905. Other Carnegie-funded libraries built in the County were Coalinga’s in 1914 (for which he provided $20,000), Clovis’ in 1915 ($7,000), and Sanger’s in 1916 ($10,000). The women of Reedley organized a library and by 1910, it was operating out of a town ice cream parlor, where it remained until 1914.

      The year 1910 saw a flurry of branch library foundings. The Kingsburg Library was established January 20, 1910 in a drugstore, later moving into an upstairs room in a bank building. The Kerman Free Library was established June 20, 1910 in the office of the Fresno Irrigated Farms Company. By October of 1920 it had relocated to a storeroom, and it soon moved into the telephone company building where it could be open day and evening. The Parlier Library was established November 1, 1910 in the office of John E. Schofield, a local justice of the peace. The Easton Library began its operation in a neighborhood school house on November 1, 1910. Finally, the Caruthers Library was established on October 25, 1911 in a town hotel room.

      Midway through the decade there was yet another surge in library services. In 1913 the Fowler Free Library came into the County system. In 1914 that branch moved into its current location on the town’s main business street. Coalinga withdrew from County service in 1912 because of transportation difficulties and has since operated as an independent library district. Selma Library became a branch of the County Free Library in August 1913. It entered the system with 2,055 volumes and its small Carnegie building. The Riverdale Library was established on April 18, 1913 in a room furnished by Riverdale. The Tranquillity Library was established on October 16, 1913. By 1916 it had moved out of town to the Standard Oil Company’s pumping station, later returning to town in 1918. The Orange Cove Branch Library was established March 16, 1915 in the post office. In August 1923 it was moved into a rented building at 545 Park Boulevard. The San Joaquin Branch was established on July 2, 1916 in an office building of the San Joaquin Valley Farm Land Company.

      In May 1917, the City Board of Trustees adopted a resolution calling for the Fresno County Public Library to become a part of the County system. This action was followed on July 11, 1917 by a vote of the County Board of Supervisors incorporating the City Library into the County system. Thus the Fresno Public Library and its Board of Library Trustees passed out of existence. After July 1917 the Fresno County Public Library was the only library jurisdiction in the County except for the Law Library and the Coalinga High School District.

      The end of the period saw further additions to the library system. The Big Creek Branch was established in Mr. Arthur Presley’s store on January 10, 1917. The following year the library moved into the hotel of W. R. Thrower. The Auberry Branch Library opened in Mr. Wellington O. Root’s store on December 6, 1918. The Mendota Branch Library was established on April 9, 1919 in a room rented by the County.

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    • During the 1920s, the County Library emphasized upgrading the level of service through training and supervision of paraprofessionals, hiring more skilled people, and increasing hours. The 1920s also saw a shift of emphasis at the Central Library from providing light reading to nonfiction. The Reference Department and Circulation Desk were formed as well. Also in 1920, the Fresno County Public Library was designated as a federal depository library for federal government publications and, in 1923; it also became a depository for California State publications. In 1923 the Children’s Department was developed under the leadership of Miss Pauline Yager. Doris Gates, for whom the children’s room in the current central library is named, became the children’s librarian in 1931. She was a noted children’s book author, best known for “Blue Willow”, which was named a Newbery Honor Book in 1941.

      The early years of the 1920s saw several more additions to the Fresno County Library. The Laton Library became a branch of the Fresno County Public Library in 1923. The Fresno University Branch, which later became Cedar Clinton Library opened April 17, 1922 in an upstairs room in a building on the Fresno State Teachers College campus. The space was donated by the college. The Firebaugh Library was established January 1, 1923 in the school house as a regular branch. The Sierra Vista branch opened on January 6, 1927 at the request of the Parent Teacher Association. and the clubs of the Sierra Vista District. The library occupied a room at the Methodist Church on east Tulare Street.

      To serve those involved with constructing Southern California Edison hydroelectric projects in eastern Fresno County library branches were established at all the company’s mountain camps. These isolated camps were usually supplied library materials by car or truck but during the winter months Jerry Dwyer, described by Sarah McCardle as an “old Alaska driver”, drove a dog sled each winter from Huntington Lake over Kaiser Pass to service the Florence Lake Branch.

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    • The 1930s brought the Great Depression. The County Library’s budget was cut $10,000 leaving just $4,000 to buy books for the entire County. The libraries became havens for the unemployed searching newspapers and magazines for jobs.

      During this period, the Shaver Lake Library was established in February 1934 in a garage owned by G. H. Norton.

      The Mendota Branch Library moves in 1937 into a room fixed for the library in part of a garage.

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    • The 1940s brought World War II and zoning laws prohibiting Japanese from entering certain strategic areas. The Central Library was one of these locations. Despite being enthusiastic readers, Japanese children were banned from the facility. Books were hard to obtain because of paper allocations. However, war-time budgets brought an increase in the collection and the replacement of many worn items. On December 31, 1945 Sarah McCardle, traditionally seen as the first Fresno County Librarian, ended her career.

      Branches formed in this period included Fresno’s Gillis which came into existence in 1940 and was named after James L. Gillis, State Librarian during 1899-1917. Until 1958-59 this was the largest metropolitan branch in terms of book circulation. Later on in the decade, in 1948, the Pinedale Branch Library was established.

      Margaret VanDussen became Fresno County Librarian on January 1, 1946. The theme of her administration was obtaining a new central library and increasing publicity for the system. By this time, the old Carnegie library was running out of space. Sarah McCardle had been urging the construction of a new library since 1922. The need for room became so great that the men’s room was converted to an office and the male staff was forced to make arrangements to use a restroom in a building down the street. Despite these problems, circulation continued to soar.

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    • Plans for a new central library were approved on February 19, 1957 and ground was broken at the Mariposa and N streets location on April 30, 1957. After two years of work the new library was opened on April 13, 1959. This building remains the Central Branch. Mrs. VanDussen retired in the following year.

      The West Fresno Branch was dedicated on February 8, 1959 and was open for service the next day. The West Fresno Branch was the first County-constructed building designed solely for branch library purposes.

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    • Mrs. Alice F. Reilly became the next Fresno County Librarian on April 16, 1960, with a theme of improving public service by improving the professional staff and the resources available to them. She pushed for the hiring of librarians from master’s degree holders, despite County personnel rules making anyone doing the work of a librarian automatically a librarian. Additional clerks and secretaries were hired, relieving librarians of various non-librarian responsibilities.

      The decade brought additional expansion to the library system in Fresno County. In the 1961-62 fiscal year, a bookmobile was purchased and staffed with a librarian. It was an overwhelming success. After one year of operation, its circulation was higher than any other branch. Fresno’s Fig Garden branch was established in September 1962 after a busy bookmobile stop showed the need for a permanent branch. In 1971, this branch was relocated across the street in larger quarters. The Sierra Vista Branch on east Tulare Street closed in February 1963 because of dropping circulation rates. The bookmobile provided services to the area until Sunnyside was up and running. The Sunnyside Branch was opened to the public on January 4, 1965.

      The most important accomplishment of the 1960s was the creation of the San Joaquin Valley Library Information Service or SJVLIS (now SJVIS). It was a cooperative service dedicated to improve the quality of reference service in the San Joaquin Valley. Housed in the basement of the Central Library, it served as a central reference resource for member libraries dealing only with questions forwarded by librarians. The project was so successful after its two-year demonstration period that seven library jurisdictions chose to continue as members and pay for the service.

      The San Joaquin Valley Library Information Service laid the foundation for the creation of the San Joaquin Valley Library System (SJVLS) in 1964. This network of libraries has done much to improve reference service, train library staff, and improve technical service to member libraries.

      Fresno book dealer and William Saroyan bibliographer, David Kherdian, sold his 350 item Saroyan literary collection to the Fresno County Public Library in April 1966. County Librarian, Alice Reilly, stated the price was “reasonable”. The collection went on display at the library on April 17, 1966 and became the nucleus of the now extensive Saroyan collection.

      Groundbreaking for the new Sanger Library was in August 1966. The dedication and open house were held on March 19, 1967. The circulation more than doubled the first week and continued high for the first two months.

      The Biblioteca Ambulante, a SJVLS Spanish language bookmobile, was purchased in the summer of 1968 and staffed through the use of a federal grant serving as an important outreach to the Hispanic community.

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    • The 1970s saw the opening of new branch buildings for both Selma and Clovis. The Mosqueda Branch opened on East Butler near Maple, servicing an area which had previously seen little or no library service.

      The Ivy Center Branch opened November 19, 1973 in the new Ivy Community Center. The West Fresno Branch was closed and its equipment was moved to the Ivy Center Branch in mid-November forming a new West Fresno-Ivy Center.

      The Leo Politi Branch, at First and Bullard in Fresno opened in May 1974. Almost the whole collection was checked out on opening day. The branch was named after Fresno native Leo Politi, an award-winning author and illustrator of children’s books, and features murals and artwork by him.

      The Talking Book Library for the Blind opened in 1975, as a subregional library of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Although a branch of the Fresno County Public Library, Talking Book serves patrons in Fresno, Madera, Kings, and Tulare counties.

      Mrs. Alice Reilly retired as County Librarian in December 1975 and was replaced by John Kallenberg on March 1, 1976.

      The 1970s also saw the passing of Proposition 13 in 1978, bringing property tax relief to California tax payers but fiscal misery to the library. Proposition 13 prompted a decline in library service that went on for years and was later ended by Measure B’s passage in 1998. Luckily the Friends of the Library group (founded in 1979) greatly increased donations of money to the library, and helped during those lean years.

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    • ULYSIS, the Fresno County Public Library’s first computerized catalog system, arrived in 1983. By 1990, public-access terminals gave the public the capability to view all cataloged materials in the entire SJVLS system. Three years later, library technology had evolved to the point where individuals could visit a public terminal, and request materials from any SJVLS system member, without the aid of library staff. In 1997-1998, ten County Library branches were offering public access Internet computers. By 2003-2004 every branch was providing this service.

      The Bear Mountain Library in Squaw Valley was organized on October 1, 1981. It was called “Magic Key” for a time until the name Bear Mountain was selected by the joint effort of local residents and the Library Advisory Committee. It was housed initially in a local real estate agent’s office.

      Easton celebrated their grand opening in a new County owned building in a new location on October 24, 1982. The Orange Center Elementary Band opened the celebration. The community of Easton worked together to purchase many items for the branch that would otherwise have not been obtained.

      San Joaquin’s new library opened June 12, 1983. The building incorporated an innovative passive solar design allowing it to operate in a comfortable temperature range while expending half the energy.

      The Piedra Branch’s grand opening was held on Saturday, September 24, 1983. Television Channel 24 provided excellent coverage of the event. The 65 people in attendance enjoyed a one man concert by Sam “The Accordion Man” Maletich.

      Parlier’s new library opened November 1, 1987. State Librarian, Gary Strong, was on the program. The first day of operation was November 3, 1987.

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    • The Fresno County Public Library celebrated its centennial year in 1993. At the time, the California History and Genealogy Room opened in 1993 as a cooperative effort of the Fresno County Public Library and the Fresno County Genealogical Society. It united the Library’s local and historical collections with the Society’s extensive library

      Measure B was passed by Fresno County voters in November of 1998 to provide the funding lost to the library by the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. Measure B is a one-eighth of one percent sales tax, providing funds for improvement of library services throughout the County including the Coalinga Huron Library district. The result has been more hours, more materials, more services to Fresno County residents, and reestablishment of literacy services. Measure B has also contributed to many new building and renovation projects: see for additional information. In 2004, Fresno voters renewed Measure B extending the tax through March 2013.

      The Day Care Bookmobile began operation in September 2000 visiting commercial and Head Start preschools throughout Fresno County each month to offer story times and library materials. Children and teachers can browse through a rotating collection of board books, picture books, read-a-longs, videos, music CDs, multilingual books, easy readers, and teacher resource materials.

      The AprendoVan or “Learning Van” began operation in May 2002 visiting farm workers and rural communities in western Fresno County to take learning and literacy to families unable to travel to libraries in a city. During its first year of operating the AprendoVan made 544 visits and served 2,278 people.

      The Kerman Branch Library moved to a new facility in June 2002. The new $892,000, 4370 sq ft building was nearly twice the size of the rented storefront it replaced. The Kerman Library was the County’s first new library building since the Bear Mountain Branch Library in Squaw Valley opened in December 1994.

      The Laton Branch Library went through a $430,000 renovation in 2003. With the renovation, the library expanded to include the entire building. Previously, the other half of the building was occupied by a variety of groups, the latest being the Laton Community Services District.

      John Kallenberg retired as County Librarian in March 2003, and Karen Bosch Cobb served as Interim County Librarian until her appointment as County Librarian in November 2005.

      The Caruthers Branch Library moved to a new facility in April 2003. The new $2.35 million, 6050 square foot building, was six times larger than the rented storefront facility it replaced.

      The Woodward Park Regional Branch opened on May 22, 2004. The 22,000 square foot facility was the first new library to be built within the Fresno City limits since 1976.

      The Senior Resource Center Library opened in June 2005. This one-room library located at Fresno’s Senior Resource Center, opened with more than 1500 books, primarily focused on material for seniors and their caregivers.

      The new Mendota Branch Library opened on September 28, 2007.  This new library was the first one completed in Fresno County with funding from the Library Bond Act of 2000.  Other firsts include the first Homework Center, and the first location to offer wireless Internet capability.  The new 12,576 square foot building replaces the 960 square foot leased building in use since 1956.

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McCardle, Sarah E. “History of Fresno County Public Library.” TS, 1932.

Parker, Mary Ann. “History of the Fresno County Public Library 1910-1970.”
MA diss., California State University, Fresno, 1977.

Schimmel, Michael. “History of Library Service in Fresno County/1893-1993.”
Fresno Past & Present, vol. 35 no 2 (summer 1993): 1-11.

Schimmel, Michael. “History of Library Service in Fresno County/1893-1993.”
Fresno Past & Present, vol. 35 no 4 (winter 1993-94): 1-11.

Card File of the Fresno County Associate Librarian

“Fresno County Public Library Annual Reports”

“Fresno County Public Library Intercom”

“Fresno County Public Library Impulse”

“Fresno Bee”