Books for Californians – The California Library System

"This [county library] system is designed to give library service to the people of the county as a unit: and its success, so far, has in every way justified its existence." – State Librarian James Gillis, 1911

California without libraries – such was the case a little more than a hundred years ago, with the exception of a few private and city libraries. The California State Library (CSL) was instrumental in creating California's county library system. Few of the millions of Californians today who benefit from this program realize the major role the CSL had in its creation.

Third State Library delivery truck at the State Capitol, 1924
Third State Library delivery truck at the State Capitol, 1924.

In 1900, the Library opened its collections to the general public, but this did little for Californians who could not travel to Sacramento. Beginning in 1903, the Extension Department of Traveling Libraries made the holdings available to the wider public. Legislation in 1909 and 1911 helped to establish California's county library system as well as a training program for librarians to staff these libraries. The first branch was opened in 1908, and by 1915 there were 23.

Exterior of the Tulare County Library branch at the African American township of Allensworth, c.1910s
Exterior of the Tulare County Library branch at the African American township of Allensworth, c.1910s.


Book box being prepared to be shipped out to the Kern County Free Library, 1920s
Book box being prepared to be shipped out to the Kern County Free Library, 1920s.


Mail carriers with sleigh full of State Library books, Siskiyou County, c. 1908
Mail carriers with sleigh full of State Library books, Siskiyou County, c. 1908.


California State Library mailer with map advertising the 49 California counties with County Free Libraries, c.1910s
California State Library mailer with map advertising the 49 California counties with County Free Libraries, c.1910s.