Early Days of the Public Library
By Herbert C. Hensley
Editor's note: Herbert C. Hensley, 1876-1957, was a prolific and accurate source of information on early San Diego. The following article was extracted from his typewritten memoirs, now preserved in the files of the Serra Museum.
Most local historians, in writing about the San Diego Public Library, content themselves with beginning in 1882, when it was formally organized with adequate quarters on the upper floor of the old Consolidated Bank Building at Fifth and G Streets, with a regular librarian on duty and a quite creditable assortment of books and current magazines for free public use.
The first steps toward a library were taken January 1, 1869, but the poverty of the times and the inability of pioneers in the movement to agree, split the organization in two after a somewhat acrimonious consideration of the terms of the proffered donation of books. Thereafter they seem to have existed separately and precariously in various meagre quarters, with reading-matter limited to newspapers and magazines received second-hand from subscribers. Initiation fees, and dues, were required of participating members.
Apparently "Father" A. E. Horton considered the establishment of a library, from the start of his activities. So it was natural enough that when the noted historian, Hubert Howe Bancroft, took up his residence in Spring Valley, Horton should discuss his plans with so eminent an authority.
The outcome was a curious deal by which Horton deeded to Bancroft the block bounded by Third, Fourth, B and C Streets, as well as a lot at the southeast corner of Fifth and G, and a few other small pieces of land; the consideration was 1000 assorted books. It might be remembered that, considering the price of about 26 cents an acre which Horton paid for the townsite only a few years earlier, this did not appear too ridiculous.
But it is possible that Horton soon may have had his misgivings -- which may or may not have tempted him to put an interpretation on his offer to the San Diego Library Association which outraged the hopeful society and just about killed the enterprise at its inception. At its meeting on January 27, 1870, the Association had listened with much satisfaction to his plan, which the members understood comprehended his presentation of those books as an outright gift. To show its appreciation, the society voted to call itself the Horton Free Library.
Everything seemed to be going beautifully when, at the next meeting, the supposed donor threw a bombshell into the gathering by stating that he had put a value of $2,000 on those books; he intended to make the association a present of half of it, but they would have to pay him the other $1,000 if they wanted the books. He suggested that they might turn over to him amounts received from life memberships ($100 each) as they were paid in.
The Association declined to consider any such arrangement, in the belief that the volumes had been offered with no strings attached. And they acted promptly. The Horton Free Library Association was dissolved and reorganization effected under the name of the San Diego Library Association. The old board of directors was returned to office -- except for Horton. He took exception to their attitude, stated that his offer had been misunderstood and his intentions unappreciated and, in fact, he felt he had been insulted -- and bowed himself out of the meeting.
The Horton Free Library Association had a membership of 36, all of whom had paid their $2.50 initiation fees, and three months' dues at 50 cents, so the new organization was not without funds. Its officers were G. W. B. McDonald, president; A. Pauly, vice-president; E. W. Morse, treasurer; C. Dunham, recording secretary, and D. Cleveland, corresponding secretary.
On March 2, 1873, following the disagreement with Horton and his withdrawal from the organization named for him, the San Diego Free Reading Room Association was organized, several members of the San Diego Library Association joining it. From time to time consolidation was proposed, but there does not seem to be any record of this having been done formally, and apparently they remained separate for several years. Around the end of 1872 or the spring of 1873, activity of the earlier organization seems to have ended.
Soon after the dissolution of the Horton Free Library Association and its resurrection as the San Diego Library Association, Horton placed the books (which he referred to as his private library) in a small room on Third Street, adjoining the Horton Bank Building. This building, at the southwest corner of Third and D, originally was intended for the offices of the Texas & Pacific Railroad; later it was the City Hall, and finally became the Union Building. Horton announced that the public was welcome to use the books, but not satisfied with such an irresponsible arrangement, he finally donated them to the San Diego Free Reading Room May 21, 1873. This time he made it clear that there were no strings attached to the gift, and the Association voted him its hearty thanks.
At this time the Free Reading Room was on the west side of Fifth Street, just south of F. There was no regular librarian and readers helped themselves. This was not a very satisfactory arrangement, as there was an inclination on the part of some patrons to carry away copies of magazines and newspapers, for perusal by their own firesides. At one time the Association advertised in the newspapers, offering a reward of $1 for the return of a missing copy of Harper's Magazine, or information as to the identity of the person who had taken it.
During 1874, 1875 and 1876, the Free Reading Room carried on, raising funds in various ways for running expenses, and for moving to larger quarters adjoining the Post Office, on F Street between Sixth and Seventh. In January of 1874 they received $8 from J. D. White, elocutionist, who gave an entertainment at Horton Hall and donated a third of the receipts. A "calico ball" at the Horton House that July brought a larger sum. In April of 1875 a spelling-bee at Horton Hall netted $100, and a benefit entertainment, "The Cricket on the Hearth" was another financial success at Horton Hall. Following the play, there was a demonstration of that marvelous new invention, the telephone, by a Lieutenant Read of the Signal Corps.
Information on the activities of the Free Reading Room from 1877 to 1882, when the city took over and made a going concern of the Public Library, appear to be altogether missing from files of the local papers of the day, or too vague in the memories of surviving citizens to be of much historical use. It would be interesting to know how many, and what, books of the Horton donation made up the library as regularly and responsibly instituted in 1882.