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History Matters…A Public Library For San Marino

In 1913, the Los Angeles County Free Library was established and Edna S. Rees rode the Pacific Electric Red Car into Los Angeles to borrow books. She was a resident of Sherwood Road and wife of Walter Rees, our first city clerk. An enthusiastic reader and community supporter, she requested the county open a branch in San Marino. It opened in 1915 in the Mayberry House on the corner of Oak Knoll Avenue and Monterey Road. The house also served as city hall and a school for early San Marino. Although not a librarian, Rees managed the small collection for five years.

In 1920, the library moved into the newly constructed San Marino Grammar School, now Huntington Middle School. Teachers, Mary Nelson and Mrs. Clapp, managed the books in a room next to the auditorium. Within a decade, school principal Miss Edrys Nagle declared the increased circulation was just too much for them to handle.

The library needed larger facilities. A 1930 bond election raised $11,000 to construct a building at 1665 West Drive for use by the county library until the school district required the space for administrative offices. The architectural firm Marsh, Smith and Powell designed a Spanish-style building that today is headquarters of the San Marino Unified School District.

Centrally located, nurtured by a community of avid readers, the library’s popularity grew. Soon residents wanted their own library and in August 1932 chose to sever ties with the county. San Marino Public Library officially opened in the rain on Jan. 16, 1933. Library Trustees hired Louise White Blinkhern as city librarian and Miss Emily Daubney as children’s librarian.

Throughout the 1930s both library and school district flourished, but coexisting on West Drive was challenging. The library was “bursting at the seams,” according to their 1938 annual report. Collections had increased to twice the building’s capacity. That year the city purchased the Edwin G. Hart property on the southwest corner of West and Huntington Drives; however, a new library would have to wait.

A decade of depression and concerns of war contributed to the defeat of a bond election in 1940. During World War II the library acquired more volumes and experienced heavy use. So many children spent their days safely ensconced in the library that adult patrons often could not find an empty chair.

A 1947 bond measure was unsuccessful. But with 25,000 books in a space designed for 6,500, something had to be done. In true San Marino fashion, the trustees, city council and concerned citizens organized another bond election requesting $235,000 and in 1949 and it passed. Herbert J. Powell was hired to design a library for the Hart property that would compliment adjacent school properties.

The new library opened Dec. 3, 1951 with a new Children’s Librarian, Beverly Saunders. Many people have fond memories of the story-time alcove in the Children’s Room where parents and children flocked to hear Saunders read. After her 1984 retirement, stained glass windows were placed in the children’s alcove in her honor. Those windows hang on the wall of the children’s room today.

Over the next few decades the library enjoyed high use and earned a reputation as “one of finest and best equipped” suburban libraries in the United States. Sadly, difficult times were ahead. The passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 caused severe budget cuts. The community responded this time by volunteering to shelve books, maintain landscaping and donate to the book budget.

The economy rebounded by 1990 and Librarian Carolyn Crain began introducing modern technology…a web-based electronic catalog, automated circulation system and internet access. Friends of the Library opened a Book Shoppe in the auditorium and continued to support the materials budget.

At the millennium collections again exceeded space, over 95,000 volumes in a space designed for 60,000. The air-conditioning system failed in 1999 and in 2003 the heating system. The basement flooded, retrofitting was needed and there was no disability access. Conditions launched the largest project in city history.

Applications for state funding failed but San Marino was not discouraged. In 2003, the City Council approved $5.5 million for construction. Former Mayor Suzanne Crowell and her family gave a major gift and the Foundation of the Public Library campaigned to raise the remaining funds.

The Crowell Public Library opened on Jan. 26, 2008. A jewel in our community, the library offers more services than ever, dozens of programs every quarter, and has rising circulation figures.Librarian Irene McDermott heads an outstanding staff, utilizing the best technologies available. Leadership and support are provided by: trustees who set policies and procedures; Friends of the Library with the Book Shoppe; and Foundation of the Public Library through such fundraising events as Delicious Destinations.

“I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries,” according to Carl Sagan in “Cosmos.”

The success of our library over a century of challenges is the result of so many San Marino residents supporting our library and investing in our future.

Community members are invited to visit the library at any time, but especially on Saturday, Jan. 23 when we celebrate our eighth anniversary with an Open House. There will be activities, food and fun for the entire family.

Send comments and suggestions to historyofsanmarino@gmail.com.


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