The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1984, Volume 30, Number 4
Thomas L. Scarf, Managing Editor

Book Reviews

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

A Promise Kept: The Story of the James S. Copley Library. By Richard Reilly. San Diego: Copley Books, 1983. Illustrations. Bibliography. Notes. Index. 174 pages. $45.00

Reviewed by Raymond Starr, Professor of History; Chairman of the Public History Committee; and Chairman of the Faculty Advisory Committee, Center for Regional History, of San Diego State University. The James S. Copley Library was more or less begun in October 1964 when James S. Copley asked Richard Reilly, an advertising man with a rare book and manuscript collecting avocation, to help him assemble a library, “one that is solid, substantial and important.” Copley wanted it to be built around quality items and to reflect the interests of Copley and his wife Helen. From that beginning came the Copley Library, housed in a new building in La Jolla, which was dedicated on November 19, 1982.

In A Promise Kept: The Story of the James 5. Copley Library, Richard Reilly, now the Curator, has written a very personal account of the building of the collections, liberally illustrated with high quality reproductions of some of the art works and with extensive quotations from the books and manuscripts. The book is written in a clear and interesting style well laced with anecdotal material – which makes it very readable. The overriding tone of the book is set by the title, “A Promise Kept,” as the book shows how Helen Copley kept her promise to her husband to bring his library to completion.

A Promise Kept is structured chronologically with explanations of how and why certain items were acquired. Since Reilly also includes descriptions of the collections, the book serves both as a history of how the library evolved, and as a general guide to its holdings. As the story of how the various collections were acquired, the book will be fascinating to art, book and manuscript collectors everywhere. Although the library was not built by or primarily for researching scholars, Reilly’s book clearly shows that there is much in the Library for scholars. The book should make researchers aware of the richness of the Copley Library’s collections and stimulate the use of them.

The main topics developed in A Promise Kept reflect the main areas of concentration in the Library: The American Revolution, Constitution and early Presidents; and the West, especially Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, John C. Fremont and Kit Carson. There is also information on San Diego, on history of medicine, music, literature and some excellent material on Mexico. Reilly also discusses the authorization and design of the building, including the way in which the Lincoln bricks from Springfield, Illinois, were integrated into the structure.

To the family and friends of James S. Copley, it is likely the Library primarily represents a tribute and a memorial to him. In a larger sense, however, the significance of the Copley Library is that it represents another important step in the increasing cultural maturation of San Diego. The value of Reilly’s book, then, is that it shows how that Library came into being and grew, and what it contains. Reilly also gives us significant insights into the personality and character of James and Helen Copley, which is important to historians wishing to understand San Diego history in the middle half of the twentieth century. Done in a leather bound special presentation edition, plus a small printing in a commercial edition, A Promise Kept is not destined to become a collector’s item; it already is a collector’s item.