History of the California State Library

Photo of  fountain plaza between 9th and 10th Streets at Capitol Mall. Shows Capitol and Library-Courts Building.

Nearly a year before California was admitted as the 31st state, its citizens were working hard to build a government that could meet the needs of the rapidly growing population. One of the first actions taken by the State Senate was to appoint a “Committee on State Library” to investigate the best way to organize and preserve the collection of books, maps and documents that were being used as reference materials by the new lawmakers.

“The Committee on State Library beg leave to report, that through the liberality of some distinguished citizens, the State is in possession of a number of volumes of very valuable work. The Committee have been informed that it is the intention of other citizens to make donations also, and there is a probability that in a short time the State will be in possession of a large number of works.”

State Senator Alexander W. Hope, December 28, 1850

By the end of the following month, Governor Peter Burnett had signed a bill establishing the State Librarian and assigning the duty to maintain the Library to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State continued to serve as the State Librarian in an ex-officio capacity until 1861. In 1855, under the administration of James W. Denver, the legislature approved the expenditure of $17,250 to purchase the San Francisco Law Library. In 1860, the collection grew again as the Library received authorization to purchase newspaper files.

Secretary of State (Appointed by Governor)
William Van Voorhies 1850–1853
James W. Denver 1853–1855
Charles H. Hempstead 1855–1856
David F. Douglass 1856–1858
Ferris Forman 1858–1860
Johnson Price 1860–1861

On March 8, 1861, legislation was enacted that removed responsibility for the State Library from the Secretary of State and assigned it to the newly created five-member State Library Board of Trustees. The Board, intended to reflect the role of the Library as a resource for the entire state government, was composed of the Governor, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and three members elected by the Legislature. To assist with the daily operations of the Library, the Board of Trustees was authorized to appoint a State Librarian, who was to fill that role for a four year term.

“The Board of Trustees shall have power to appoint a Librarian to superintend and take care of the State Library, and they shall prescribe such rules and regulations for the government of the library as they shall think proper.”

Chapter 62, Statutes of 1861
State Librarians (Appointed by the State Library Board of Trustees)
W. C. Stratton 1861–1870
William Neely Johnson 1870–1870
Robert O. Cravens 1870–1882
Talbot H. Wallis 1882–1890
Ferris Forman 1890–1896
William P. Mathews 1896–1897
Edward D. McCabe 1897–1898
Frank L. Coombs 1898–1899
James L. Gillis 1899–1917
Milton J. Ferguson 1917–1927

In 1871, the Library was expanded to include a large collection of minerals, precious metals, and other geological items. This "Cabinet Department" was initially valued at $13,000 and remained with the Library until 1887, when it was moved to the Crocker Art Gallery.

In 1899, James L. Gillis was appointed State Librarian, beginning one of the most important eras in the history of the Library. In addition to founding the county library system, which serves Californians in all 58 counties today, Gillis was instrumental in building support for the construction of the Library and Courts Building in downtown Sacramento to house the growing collection.

Another major accomplishment during Gillis’ term as State Librarian was the donation of mining magnate and San Francisco Mayor Adolph Sutro’s private library to the state in 1913. This 125,000 volume collection includes rare manuscripts, books, and documents and was described as early as 1892 as “one of the four great libraries of the world.” The Sutro Library, which opened to the public on in 1917, is located at San Francisco State University.

“Outside of the great public libraries of Europe there is nothing to compare with it. Mr. Sutro was a shrewd buyer and accumulated a remarkable collection of books at ordinary cost. When the possessions of the mad King of Bavaria were sold, he bought largely and secured many rare volumes.”

San Francisco Call, 12 August 1898

In 1927, the Library was moved directly under the Governor, with the State Librarian becoming a position appointed by the Governor. Since then, the Library collection has continued to grow, becoming a major resource for Californians seeking information about their state, its laws and government, as well as a variety of books in print or Braille.

State Librarians (Appointed by Governor)
Milton J. Ferguson 1927–1930
Mabel R. Gillis 1930–1951
Carma R. Zimmerman Leigh 1951–1972
Ethel S. Crockett 1972–1980
Gary E. Strong 1980–1994
Dr. Kevin Starr 1994–2004
Susan Hildreth 2004–2009
Stacey A. Aldrich 2009–2012
Gerald Maginnity 2012–2014
Greg Lucas 2014–Present