"In going back over the record, one may say, indeed, that the San Marino Library was built either by readers or by individuals who perceived the merit in reading." So writes Carol Nunn, in her history San Marino Library: 1915-1959.
This public spirit helped to found a library for San Marino over ninety years ago. When the City incorporated in 1913, Henry E. Huntington loaned his Mayberry house, on the corner of Oak Knoll and Monterey Road, to the new town to serve as school and city hall. Edna S. Rees (1883-1963), wife of Walter B. Rees, the San Marino's first city clerk, had the habit of taking the Pacific Electric streetcar into Los Angeles to borrow books from the Los Angeles County Free Library. With help from her library contacts downtown, Mrs. Rees established a branch of the county library in the Mayberry house in 1915. Although Rees was not a librarian, she managed the collection of 568 books, opening the library on Wednesdays during business hours. "I just tried to get something started," Rees later recalled.
1920 saw the construction of the San Marino School (now Huntington Middle School). Although still a part of the County system, the library moved into the school and served its students during the day. In this decade, the leadership of the library passed from the City to the school board, and the library itself was little more than a small room lined with books next to the school auditorium. For a time, teacher Mary Nelson played the dual role as librarian and instructor of the first and second grade.
Between 1920 and 1930, the population of San Marino grew 600%, to over 3000 people. By 1928, library circulation "had grown so that the teachers couldn't handle it," according to Miss Edrys Nagle, who was then the principal. In 1930, the city voters passed a bond to build a structure at 1665 West Drive, the current home of the San Marino Unified School District. It was decided that the county library could occupy this building until the schools had need of it.
That arrangement didn't last long. Within a year, citizen activists within the P.T.A. lobbied the City Council for the establishment of a city library for San Marino, separate from the County system. The San Marino Public Library was officially established in August, 1932. Library Trustees hired Louise P. White (later Mrs. L.E. Blinkern, 1906-1993) as the library director, and retained Miss Emily Daubney, a native of Nottingham, England, as children's librarian (Daubney had served as the County branch librarian from 1930 to 1932).
The San Marino Public Library opened quietly on a rainy January 16, 1933. For the next five years, the San Marino Library operated out of the School District building, steadily growing its collection and serving as both public and school library. Yet, as the population of the city and schools grew, that arrangement became increasingly awkward.
Changes began in 1938. In June, the beloved librarian Emily Daubney died, and William L. Valentine, one of five founding City Councilmen of San Marino, resigned suddenly due to ill health. By then, the library was "bursting at the seams…holding 11,647 books in a building built to contain 6,500," according to its 1938 annual report.
New members of the City Council and Library Board proposed that the city build a new structure devoted exclusively to the public library on the "Hart place", at the corner of Huntington and West Drive. Unfortunately, this was just before World War II, when U.S. citizens grew increasingly worried about the impending conflict. The bond issue asking San Marinans for funds to purchase land and build a new library failed in the 1940 election.
Yet, partly because of the war, library use continued to increase. By 1941, the library collection had grown to 16,000 volumes, about 9000 more than the capacity of the building. In addition, parents had become comfortable with the practice of leaving their children at the library after school "to be called for later in the evening." This became problematic during the time of air raids and blackouts following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Leaving children unattended at the library was "not a safe practice in war time," according to a library press release from early 1942.
Throughout the 1940's, library trustees and staff wrestled with their over-crowded building and inadequate facilities. By 1947, the library held 25,000 volumes in a space designed for a quarter of that number. So many students used the building that there was little room for adult patrons, even in the evenings.
In 1947, a community group sponsored a massive bond to fund a recreation facility with playground, swimming pool, and community building. Plans for a new library were tacked onto deal. That bond was defeated at the polls.
After that second defeat, the Trustees, the City Council, and citizen supporters of the library coordinated and focused their efforts. They personally enlisted the support of the business people who had rejected the earlier bond. The approach worked, and the bond issue calling for funds to build a new library passed in October, 1949.
The new library, designed by Herbert J. Powell, opened in December 1951. Its architectural style, called "International-Mediterranean mix," combined traditional Spanish elements with a modern look. The fabled Miss Beverly Saunders was hired to run the Children's area, with its story-time alcove and low window seats. New library director June Bayless implemented modern library practices and oversaw the formation of the Friends of the San Marino Public Library in 1956. That year also saw the installation of a central air conditioning system. The Friends created the teak-lined "Fine Arts Room" in 1959.
During the 1960's and 70's, the library was hailed as the "Hub of the Community" under the direction of Bayless, E. Caswell Perry starting in 1968, and then Lois Ann Deines, who took the helm in 1976. In 1971, the library joined the Metropolitan Cooperative Library System (now called Southern California Library Cooperative), a consortium designed to enhance coordination among area libraries.
Beverly Saunders was named California Librarian of the Year in 1968. She retired in 1984. In 1985, stained glass windows in her honor were placed in the children's alcove. Today, these windows have a home on the walls of the Crowell Library children's room.
The passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 forced the library to cut its services drastically. Citizens came to the rescue, helping to run the library with volunteer labor. The 1980's marked a period of stasis, of struggle to restore library services. At the same time, cultural changes brought new demands: as mothers entered the work force, the library became an after school refuge for students.
In 1990, Carolyn Crain became library director with a mandate to technologically modernize library service. She installed the first CD-ROM database along with a word processing workstation. In 1995, the San Marino Public Library Foundation formed and raised funds to digitize the card catalog. The new system came online in 1997 over SM Net, a community volunteer project that connected the library and City Hall to the Internet. In 1998, the library began to offer internet access to the public.
These technological advances strained the aging infrastructure of the library. In addition, the building now held 95,000 volumes in a structure designed for 60,000. "Also lacking is adequate access for the disabled, seismic retrofitting, fire-sprinklers, a modern infrastructure for computers and other technology, and proper conditions for storage of historical materials," wrote Tim Gregory in his Historic Resources Technical Report. In 1999, the 43-year-old air conditioning system failed. In 2003, the steam pipe heating system cracked, flooding the basement. It was time once again to build a new library.
Three times the library applied unsuccessfully for state funds from the 2000 Proposition 14 Public Library Construction and Renovation Bond. Finally, in 2003, the San Marino City Council approved $5.5 million for the construction of a new building. In June 2005, former San Marino mayor Suzanne Crowell and her family donated the several million dollars that jump started the project. Construction began in September 2006. The new Crowell Public Library opened on January 26, 2008.
Tragedy followed triumph as library director Carolyn Crain, who had championed the building of the new library, succumbed to cancer on May 8, 2008.
After Crain's death, the City reorganized. It folded the library and the recreation department into a new Community Services Department, headed by Lucy Garcia. Ann Dallavalle took the helm of the library division.
The Crowell Public Library flourishes under this new model. It offers dozens of programs every quarter. Circulation in FY 2008-09 is up 28% from FY 2005-06, the last year that the old library was open.
This success is the result of investment from community and staff. The words of Carol Nunn ring as true today as they did 50 years ago, when she wrote, in her thesis San Marino's Library, 1915-1959, that the library "…is an achievement of its citizens-of board members, friends, staff, and users, each contributing according to his own ability or his own need."
Irene McDermott, October 2009