California's first public library was established in Monterey in 1849. Colton Hall schoolmaster the Reverend Dr. Samuel H. Willey, in his Thirty Years in California, claimed credit for organizing the library, and other individuals were substantially involved. Civic leaders established Monterey Library Association and persuading citizens to purchase $40 shares in a public library which would "...afford amusement, entertainment, and profit to a large class of people who, without its aid, would waste their time in the frivolities and questionable pastimes so prevalent in our State."
From the sale of stock, the Association raised $1,500, which was used to purchase the first collection of books. Monterey's first American alcalde, Walter Colton, who had returned to the East, arranged for the collection of about 900 books to be shipped around Cape Horn to Monterey. The original collection featured a well chosen variety of works of history, theology, biography, poetry, science and medicine, travel journals, legal and political writings, reference works including the Encyclopedia Americana and Webster's Dictionary. There were about 250 works of fiction featuring American classics by DeFoe and Cooper, 18th Century English classics, and a heavy dose of popular contemporary writer Charles Dickens. About one-quarter of the books were written in Spanish.
The first library was housed in El Cuartel, a Mexican government building built in 1840, which was located on what is now Munras Avenue, just south of Simoneau Plaza. There was a reading room stocked with books, newspapers, magazines, maps and government documents. Shareholders were allowed to borrow books, but others could gain this privilege by paying a monthly subscriber's fee of one dollar and by leaving with the librarian a cash deposit equal to twice the value of the book being borrowed. Almost as soon as the library was established, Monterey suffered a series of economic misfortunes, not the least of which was mass depopulation owing to the Gold Rush. In 1874, the library moved to Colton Hall where, because of lapses in the operation of local government, the library was kept under lock and key. Later, the library was moved to the school house which burned to the ground in 1893, destroying most of the library's collection. In 1901, Monterey's public library reorganized under the auspices of a ladies' literary society. Soliciting book donations and holding fundraising events, the volunteers were able to keep the library open two afternoons a week in various storefronts on Alvarado Street.
In 1906, the Monterey Library Association turned over its assets to the City of Monterey. With a piece of real estate donated by Mrs. A.M. Freitas and a building grant from Andrew Carnegie, the Monterey Public Library opened its doors at 425 Van Buren Street in 1911. The new library was designed by prolific California architect William Weeks, in the Mission Revival style, and was home for Monterey Public Library for the next 40 years. It featured separate reading rooms for adults and children and a basement smoking room with a fireplace for gentlemen only. On June 30, 1911, the Monterey Daily Cypress predicted that the new gentlemen's smoking room would be quite popular with laborers because the entrance was situated so that a fellow could drop in for a read and a smoke without having to dress up. Today, the Carnegie building, which has been expanded and remodeled, is home to the library for Monterey Institute of International Studies.
During the process of selecting an appropriate site for the Carnegie building, the residents of New Monterey made a strong bid for locating the library in their neighborhood. When the decision was made to accept the downtown Van Buren Street site, what began as a protest by New Monterey residents, sustained itself as a permanent lobby for library services in the city's outlying areas. In 1913, Miss Ella Thomas consented to act as custodian over a New Monterey branch library, established in her Lighthouse Avenue office. But because the branch was just set up for the purpose of circulating books, had no reading room, and was open only five hours per week, it was less than satisfactory. It took two decades of citizen persuasion, but in 1931, a New Monterey branch library was built at 700 Laine Street, near the present site of the Bayview School. The New Monterey branch library was in operation for twenty years before it re-entered the limelight. In 1953, the City Council proposed to close the branch in a cost-savings measure. The proposal met with letters of protest, petitions, and stormy public meetings until it was finally decreed that the branch would close permanently on January 1, 1954. The Council made its decision a bit more palatable to the angry citizens by announcing that a bookmobile would be purchased to provide even better library services to people of the outlying areas, including those in New Monterey. The bookmobile went into service in 1956.
In the meanwhile, the main library, originally designed to serve a population of 5,000 found itself serving a population of 17,500. The collection had grown from 3,500 volumes to 46,000 volumes in a building planned for a maximum of 20,000 books. So, in 1950 the voters of Monterey passed a $350,000 bond measure for the construction of a new home for the Monterey Public Library. The new building was erected on an odd-shaped site located at the corner of Madison and Pacific Streets. The structure was designed in the Second Bay Tradition by the firm of noted California architect William Wurster and is one of Monterey's outstanding attractions for people interested in California architecture. Second Bay Tradition is more of a philosophy than a style because Wurster's approach to architecture was highly personal. He believed that each building should be unique, not beholden stylistically to an architectural precedent; that a building should be modern in terms of arrangement of space, use of materials, and application of technology; that a building's characteristics be determined primarily by its location; and that its appearance be in close harmony with its surroundings.
As an example of Second Bay Tradition architecture, the building was a complete success. The design employs a system of radiating steel beams which allow for 16-ft ceilings without the use of interior support walls and floor to ceiling windows for abundant natural light. Exposed I-beams with steel columns support the mezzanine for an effect that it light, open and airy and yet makes no attempt to conceal the structural components of the building. To mitigate the "steel and glass" on the outside of the building which is housed in an architecturally eclectic neighborhood which includes important historic buildings and Mexican-era adobes, the architect used a system of concrete buttresses, placed at 16-ft intervals, and recessed the steel-framed glass windows for a lovely sculpted effect. The concrete walls were coated with a creamy stucco and painted white to suggest, but not copy, the look of local adobes. The building has long, low, horizontal lines with a balcony over the entry, for an effect which is interestingly reminiscent of El Cuartel. The awkward pentagonal shape of the building site was not in any way altered to more easily accommodate a building. Instead, the shape of the building takes its cue from the site, closely hugging the lot line along its Madison and Pacific Street fronts. Upon its opening in 1952, the new library building received national attention and high praise. In commissioning a building of such outstanding architectural merit, the citizens of Monterey made a lasting statement about the extent to which the community library is valued.
By the end of the 1970's, the library had grown beyond expectations, the combined result of increased population and contract agreements which opened the Library for use by residents of the entire Monterey County. Increased usage of services coupled with the introduction of new material formats, a need to improve access for the disabled, and the advent of computer technology necessitated both an upgrade and an expansion of the building. The charge to the architect was a challenging one, as he was confronted with an expanding a structure situated on a site with extremely limited size and unconventional shape, with a stringent requirement that the integrity of an architecturally significant building be maintained. The design was undertaken by Paul E. Davis of Davis, Jacoubowsky, Hawkins Associates of Monterey whose efforts were highly successful in meeting these difficult criteria.
In 1983, construction began on the expansion project, which added 7,500 square feet to the Library and remodeled another 3,500 square feet. A full 16-foot bay was added to the south end of the building, the rear patio was partially enclosed, and the mezzanine was doubled in length. A climate-controlled room was created for collections of rare books and historical resources, a public elevator was installed, and staff work space was nearly doubled. Other improvements included the addition of a protective fire sprinkler system, replacement of the cedar shingle roof, and the addition of handicapped accessible restrooms and entrances.
At the time of of the $1.5 million project, the interior was redesigned under the direction of Linda Lamb, who assisted staff with selection and arrangement of carpets, upholstery, and furnishings. Key to the interior design scheme was to highlight the Library's fine art collection featuring works by distinguished California painters including Francis McComas, Gene Frances Baker McComas, Abel Warshawsky, Ferdinand Burgdorff, Tulita Westfall Bennet, Henrietta Shore, Richard Lofton and Helen Gapen Oehler.
While the Library planned for its grand re-opening in July 1984, another project was in the making. For several years, the cost of operating the Bookmobile had come under scrutiny during each annual budget cycle. In 1982, citing the prospect of someday having to replace the 26 year old vehicle and a preference for reallocating the staff to the main library, it was decided to suspend the service. The decision, however, met with strong public opposition similar in size and intensity to the 1953 debate over the New Monterey Branch Library closure. The City Council resolved the matter in 1985 by approving the expenditure of $92,000 for the purchase of a new Bookmobile, and in July 1986, after a four year hiatus, the Monterey Public Library Bookmobile was back on the road.
In 1992 the Library began charging borrowing fees to non-City of Monterey residents after the county library eliminated their reimbursement to city libraries for county resident use. Non-resident fees reduced library use and generated much negative publicity for the Library. Fourteen years later, in July 2006, the Library Board voted to stop charging these fees, and library cards became free to all California residents.
In 2001 the City of Monterey faced an economic downturn. During the next four years the library's budget was cut by 15%; 11 positions were eliminated library wide, hours were reduced and the materials budget was decreased by 35%. Due to public, Board, Friends and Council support, however, the Library's seven-day-a-week open schedule and unique community services such as the Bookmobile, Stories for Adults, California History Room and youth programs were maintained.
In many ways, the Monterey Public Library of the 21st century has a close connection with the past. Every day hundreds of library customers of all ages are welcomed by helpful librarians and staff, browse the shelves, select books and other library materials, ask for reference assistance, reading recommendations and enjoy library programs with family and friends.
The Library continues to be a well-used community resource. In fiscal year that ended in June 2008, 464,017 books, CDs, DVDs, magazines and other items were checked out at the Library - a 9% increase over the previous year; and 383,591adults, teens, children and babies visited the Library and Bookmobile - an 8% increase over the previous year. In addition, 39,104 reference questions were answered, and 8,872 children, teens and adults attended Library programs. During the period between December 2007 - January 2008 there was a 29% increase in the number of library visits, and check-outs have increased by 24%. However, during the economic crises of the first decade of the 21st century demand for library service outpaced available resources.
This imbalance presented the Library with both challenges and opportunities. Beginning in 2003, deep cuts began to be made in funds for collections and staffing. Later, Sunday hours and inter-library loan service were eliminated, and the range and frequency of cultural programs were sharply reduced. Emphasis was placed on workplace efficiencies, collaborative efforts and resource sharing, and public-private partnerships. Most new initiatives received support from grants, donations and budget supplements from the hard-working Friends of the Library. In 2009, a rigorous fund development plan was initiated, with a committee of citizens working to build an endowment fund to ensure the benefits of a public library will be available in Monterey for generations to come.
Despite economic challenges, not unlke some of those faced by our founders back in the 19th century, the Library remains dedicated to sustaining California's first public library and its legacy of literacy, learning and inquiry in a vibrant, welcoming center for community and cultural life.