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  • History of the Santa Monica Public Library

    illustrated history thumbIn November 1890, Santa Monica town trustees accepted a donation of 800 books, forming the foundation for the nascent town library. On December 10, Elfie Mosse was appointed City Librarian. Located at Oregon Ave. (now Santa Monica Blvd.) and Third Street, two rooms in the Bank of Santa Monica building were set aside for the library. For the first 14 years, Elfie Mosse was the only staff, and she would lead the library until 1939.

    Since those humble beginnings, the library has grown to become a system of five locations and over 400,000 volumes in the collections. Santa Monica Public Library offers a wide variety of programs for people of all ages and engages in a lively online presence. Much has changed in 125 years, but the tradition of service remains our cornerstone.

    Read more on The Santa Monica Public Library: An Illustrated History (PDF, 6MB).




    On July 10, Santa Monica officially became a town. Within a year, Santa Monica had 1,000 residents, 160 houses, 75 tents, a school district, a church, the wharf, a bathhouse, a hotel, and the Santa Monica Outlook was launched.

    Gathering of Women's Christian Temperance Union at Assembly Camp, Temescal Canyon, 1922, [PPHS219] 
    Gathering of WCTU at Assembly Camp, Temescal Canyon. (1922) [PPHS219

    Elfie Mosse, City Librarian (1890-1939), 1939, [M61] Elfie A. Mosse, City Librarian from 1890 to 1939. (1939) [M61] 

     Old Main Library Bank of Santa Monica, the first location of Santa Monica Public Library. (1890) [M1]

     Main Library (503 SMB), Exterior view, 1912, [M2]Main Library on the corner of Oregon Ave. and Fourth St., built with Carnegie funds in 1904. (1912) [M2] 

     Ocean Park Branch (2601 Main St), Exterior view, date unknown, [M31] Ocean Park Branch Library, built with Carnegie funds, opened in 1918. (Date unknown) [M31]  

    Main library (503 SMB), Circ desk with mural, 193-, M53  Circulation Desk at Main library wtih Macdonald-Wright mural. (193-). [M53] 

    Eulalie Wilson mural, Peter Pan, [100-1965-13] Peter Pan depicted in Eulalie Wilson's mural in Main library. [100-1965-13]  

     Fairview Branch (2030 Pico), Exterior view, date unknown, [M34] Second location of Fairview branch at 2030 Pico Blvd. (Date unknown) [M34] 

    Fairview Branch (2030 Pico), Children's Halloween Party, 194-, [M35] Children's Halloween party at Fairview branch. (194-) [M35]  

    Montana Branch (1528 Montana Ave), Exterior view, 1952, [M27]  First Montana Avenue branch library at 1528-30 Montana Ave. (1952) [M27] 

    Montana Branch (1704 Montana Ave), Exterior view, 1960, [M29] Second Montana Avenue branch library at 1704 Montana Ave. (1960) [M29] 

    Fairview Branch (2101 Ocean Park), Interior view, 1956, [M37] Third Fairview Branch at 2101 Ocean Park Blvd. which opened in 1956. (1956) [M37] 

    Main Library (1343 sixth st), 1965, [M46]   Main Library at 1343 Sixth St. which opened in September 1965. (1965) [M46] 

    Main Library (1343 Sixth St), earthquake damages, 1994, M142 First floor stacks in Main Libraryafter the Northridge earthquake, January 17, 1994. (1994) [M142]    

     Main Library (1324 5th st), temporary location, [M183]  Temporary Main Library at 1324 Fifth St. (2003) [M183]

    New Main Library
     New Main Library at night from Santa Monica Blvd. [2005] [M257]


    The first Library Association was formed. $2.00 annual dues were used to purchase books. Weekly meetings were held to discuss books and read papers. The community slowly continued to grow, and the Library Association started to look for a location to be used as a reading room.


    A room adjoining Dr. Fred C. McKinnie’s drug store was established as the reading room.


    The reading room was turned over to the newly formed Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) on Third Street.

    At this time, the collection of books numbered 400, plus popular magazines and newspapers. In July the Evening Outlook described the reading room as one of the "specially inviting places in Santa Monica."


    Despite many successful fundraising events, maintaining the reading room and the building going proved challenging for WCTU. In November, 1890, WCTU proposed to turn the library of 800 volumes over to the city of Santa Monica. The town trustees accepted the gift.

    In December, 1890, the first City Librarian, Miss Elfie Mosse, was appointed.

    Two rooms in the Bank of Santa Monica building, located at Oregon Avenue (later Santa Monica Boulevard) and Third Street, were set aside for the library. Use of the reading rooms was free of charge, but borrowing privileges cost 25 cents a month.

    In March, 1893, the library was made free to the public. By this time, the library had 1,800 volumes. By 1898, the library expanded to include another room.


    In March, 1903, the library moved to the new City Hall located at Fourth Street and Oregon Avenue (later Santa Monica Boulevard) which provided more room. However, this was not meant to be a permanent location.

    As the city grew, so did the library's collection; and the public wanted a library building of its own. Early in 1903, Mrs. J.H. Clark wrote to Andrew Carnegie making a plea for a library building in Santa Monica. Carnegie’s reply in April, 1903 stated in part: “… Mr. Carnegie will be pleased to furnish Twelve Thousand Five Hundred Dollars to erect a Free Public Library Building for Santa Monica.”

    Within a short time, the citizens raised $3982.50 and purchased a lot on the northeast corner of Oregon Avenue and Fifth Street. Work began on the building in January, 1904. The library opened to the public eight months later, on August 11.


    According to the 1912-13 library annual report, the collection had increased to 18,568 volumes and circulation totaled 80,666. The collection was already beginning to outgrow the building.

    The need for branch libraries was also evident. As early as 1906, there was a book exchange located in the Clapp Brother’s Drug Store on Pier Avenue for borrowers to return books and request new ones. Eventually a lot on the northeast corner of Ocean Park Boulevard and Main Street was purchased for $8,000 to build a branch library in the Ocean Park neighborhood. The mayor wrote to the Carnegie Corporation requesting a grant to help with construction costs. Carnegie granted $12,500.

    The Ocean Park branch library opened to the public on February 15, 1918.


    In 1926, a bond issue was passed in the sum of $50,000 for the reconstruction and expansion of the Main library located at Santa Monica Boulevard and Fifth Street. The small Carnegie-funded structure was enlarged and remodeled into a Spanish-style design by E.J. Baume, with two additional wings.

    This new Main library opened to the public on November 18, 1927.


    By 1930, Santa Monica had a population of 37,000. It had a hospital, junior college, and was home to the new Douglas Aircraft Company and Clover Airfield.

    On July 1, 1931, the Fairview Heights branch library opened. Located at 1903 20th Street, it was a 15-feet wide storefront branch, sandwiched between a grocery store and barber shop.

    One of the most unique features of the remodeled Main library (located at 503 Santa Monica Boulevard was the mural by artist Stanton Macdonald-Wright. Commissioned by the Public Works Administration Project, Macdonald-Wright began work on the mural in February, 1934. It would take him 18 months to complete the project.

    Unveiled in 1935, the 2,000-square-feet composition made a lasting impression on visitors to the library. 


    Children’s books illustrator Eulalie Wilson painted the murals for the Boys and Girls Room in the Main library. Peter Pan, Cinderella, and other characters from children's books would grace the walls of the children's section for more than two decades.


    By 1942, it was clear the storefront Fairview branch library could no longer adequately handle increased patronage, and the library began to look for a more suitable location. On July 13, 1942, Fairview branch library opened its second location at 2030 Pico Boulevard.

    During World War II, long time Fairview Branch Librarian Nellie Sullivan initiated a service she had read about: preschool story times. It was the first of its kind on the West Coast.

    Also during the war in 1945, the basement of the Ocean Park branch library was converted to a Young People's Room where teenagers gathered to study and play games. In subsequent years, this room housed children’s books and then was used for meetings and library programs.


    By the 1950s, the north side of Santa Monica was in need of library services, and the Montana Avenue branch, located in a rented building at 1528-30 Montana Avenue, opened in February, 1952.

    The newest branch thrived, and within six years, the circulation climbed to over 80,000 items. The branch library had outgrown its rented space and plans were underway for a new building. Two lots on Montana Avenue were purchased. On August 20, 1959, groundbreaking ceremonies were conducted at 1704 Montana Avenue. On March 1, 1960, the new Montana Avenue branch library opened to the public.

    Plans were also underway for a larger building for the Fairview branch, which since the opening at its second location on Pico Boulevard in 1942 had grown tremendously. In 1956, the third Fairview branch at 2101 Ocean Park Boulevard opened to the public.

    1960s and 1970s

    In 1962, a bond issue was passed and land purchased on the corner of Sixth Street and Santa Monica Boulevard for the building of a new Main library. Construction began in February, 1964. The new Main library, located at 1343 Sixth Street, opened to the public in September, 1965.

    Since this new Main library did not include a place for the Macdonald-Wright murals (which were painted on detachable plywood panels and therefore were removable), they were first stored in a basement and then accepted by and moved to the Smithsonian Institution.

    Because they were painted directly on the walls, Eulalie Wilson's murals could not be moved. In 1974, in spite of efforts by citizen groups, the old Main library building was razed. Eulalie's murals were demolished as a result.

    In 1976, feasibility and public hearings were conducted to explore building of a new Ocean Park branch library. The community made it clear they wanted to the keep the familiar, original Carnegie library. In May, 1977, the building was declared an official city landmark.

    In 1978, a federal grant allowed the Fairview branch library to be expanded. A new community room was added, along with an alcove for periodicals and staff office space.

















    In the early 1980s, asbestos was discovered in the composition of the Main library's ceiling. The cost to remove the asbestos was estimated at $2,000,000. This, coupled with the fact that the building would soon be too small for the library's collections and services, prompted city management to propose the building of another Main library on a new site.

    A space and site study was done and two public hearings were held. Library patrons made it clear they were opposed to any change of location. Library staff was also opposed a new site, not wishing to work in an asbestos-infested building while a new one was constructed.

    In August, 1986, the Main library was closed for asbestos abatement. The building reopened in March, 1988 with minor changes in layout.

    The Ocean Park branch library also closed in June, 1984 for a renovation that respected the look of the beloved Carnegie building. When it reopened in September, 1985, it had a new entrance, a children's area, and a community room. The community showed its support by increasing usage 40%.

    The biggest change during this period was the implementation, in late 1988, of automated circulation and catalog systems. By January, 1989, the card catalogs familiar to generations of library patrons were removed and replaced with computers.

    In 1989 the Reference Department began answering questions via electronic mail as part of the City’s innovative Public Electronic Network.

    At 4:31 on the morning of January 17, 1994, a 6.7 earthquake struck the Los Angeles area. Hours later library staff arrived at work to find extensive damages in the Main Library and Fairview Branch. It would be weeks before the libraries reopened to the public.

    In 1996 a formal planning process began for the expansion of the Main Library, including community focus groups, surveys, and meetings. The result was a Library Master Plan, and Moore Ruble Yudell (MRY) Architects & Planners of Santa Monica was chosen to formulate the conceptual design.

    In 1998, bond was passed by 81% to fund library improvements.


    In 2000, Santa Monica Public Library became the first public library to offer Internet-based chat reference services as the pilot site of the 24/7 Reference Project, now known as OCLC’s QuestionPoint service.

    In 2000 the Library began lending DVDs.

    In 2002, after extensive community input, the Santa Monica City Council approved MRY's design.

    In spring 2003, Santa Monica Public Library presented its first Citywide Reads program in which everyone in the City was encouraged to read the same book and to discuss it. The first selection was Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

    Razing of the old library building, construction of the three-level subterranean parking garage, and construction of the two-story Main Library began in spring 2003.

    While the Main Library was under construction, the core of the library's adult collections were housed in a temporary location at 1324 Fifth Street. The "Temp Main" served the public from May 12, 2003 to December 4, 2005. The Main Library’s children’s and youth collections were housed in the lower level of the Ocean Park branch during this time. In 2005 the Library began making downloadable audiobooks available online to its cardholders.

    The new Main Library, a 104,000-square-feet facility honored with a Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) award, opened to the public in January, 2006. The new Main Library featured a larger array of public computer facilities and expanded meeting facilities, including the Martin Luther King, Jr. Auditorium.

    In 2007, in collaboration with the City’s Environmental Programs Division, the Library presented its first Green Prize for Sustainable Literature. The first winner was Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

    In 2010, the Library began lending eBooks.



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