True to Their Words

True to Their Words

The Pasadena Public Library has Always adapted to meet the needs of its many patrons over the past 130 years


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Long before Abbot Kinney developed the Venice of America, he conceived and created the Pasadena Public Library (PPL). 

A Pasadena resident, Kinney, with the help of several of his friends, established the Pasadena Free Public Library and Village Improvement Society on Dec. 26, 1882. In 1884 — 130 years ago this year — the society opened a subscription library on Colorado Boulevard, and in 1886 this building was moved to 42 W. Dayton St., in what is now Old Pasadena.

The history of the library is recounted on its Web site and in a collection of materials compiled by librarian Dan McLaughlin, which has been posted on flickr. According to these sources, the society raised funds by selling stock and staging two citrus fairs, at which citizens paid to view exhibits of San Gabriel Valley-grown fruit. In addition, subscribers paid 25 cents a month for full library privileges, and other patrons who donated a book would receive free admission.
The library quickly ran out of space for its growing collection and the society sought to build a larger facility on the southeast corner of North Raymond Avenue and Walnut Street in what is now Memorial Park. However, the society “defaulted on the bonds it issued to pay for the library building,” McLaughlin explained in an email. The city of Pasadena “passed a bond issue to cover the debts of the society and took over its assets — the unfinished building and the collection.” 
The new library, now operated by the city of Pasadena, opened on Sept. 9, 1890. At that time, children younger than 8 years old were not allowed to use the facility, as libraries in the late 19th century focused on providing books to adults who could not afford to buy them and on assimilating immigrants to American society. 

Library Director Nellie Russ, however, believed the library should provide services to children, and in 1903 she lifted the age limit. The demand for juvenile services was so great that in 1922 the children’s department relocated to its own Boys and Girls Library in Memorial Park.
The city library flourished in the first decade of the 20th century; in the fiscal year ending on June 30, 1905, 120,603 books had been loaned to patrons, with an average of 500 books loaned every day. The library was now opening branches. 

In 1905, the Washington Heights Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) opened a reading room for people in the community. Neighborhood residents sought to make this facility a branch of the library, and on Nov. 1, 1908, the library became the North Pasadena Branch, the precursor of the current La Pintoresca Branch.

The East Branch, now the Hill Avenue library, opened in February 1910; in 1925, this branch moved to its current location, a Spanish-style building designed by the Pasadena firm of Marston, Van Pelt and Maybury. A small Northeast Branch, now the Santa Catalina Branch, opened in 1913 in a dry goods store a block away from its current location. 

The first Lamanda Park Branch opened in a room in the Emerson School in 1922.  Five years later, PPL moved its Boys and Girls Library to its current location, where a new building would be constructed in 1967.   
By 1923, the library boasted that its circulation was the greatest per capita of any public library in the United States and, once again, sought additional space to provide its services. On June 8, 1923, Pasadena voters approved a $3.5 million bond issue to finance the Civic Center Plan — the construction of the City Hall, Central Library and Civic Auditorium in the downtown area. 
The Central Library was the first of the three to be built. Architect Myron Hunt designed the Spanish Colonial-style building and construction began in 1925. The facility would eventually cost $812,577 for land and construction — an amount McLaughlin estimates as $10.7 million in 2013 dollars. The Central Library opened with a dedication ceremony on Feb. 12, 1927, and was well received by citizens for the beauty of its design and accessibility of its services. 
However, in the 1930s the Great Depression put an end to the building boom and forced PPL to reduce hours and services. The financial situation had improved by World War II, when patrons used the city’s libraries to obtain information about many war-related topics, including how to find substitutes for war-rationed commodities and how to perform various tasks at defense plants. 
After the war Library Director Doris Hoyt proclaimed that no Pasadena resident should live more than one mile from a library, and the library embarked on another round of branch-building. In 1951 the Allandale Branch began operating in a reconverted isolation hospital. A 1956 bond issue financed construction of three more branches in suburban areas: Linda Vista and San Rafael, which opened in 1956, and Hastings in 1959. The Villa-Parke Community Center Library opened in 1992.  
The library celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1982, and two years later library officials began an extensive six-year renovation of the Central Library. By the 1990s, a lack of city funding forced the library officials to reduce services and consider closing some branches. These financial difficulties were resolved by a special election on June 22, 1993, in which almost 80 percent of voters approved a library tax that would generate $1.3 million. Save Pasadena’s Library, a citizens’ group supporting the tax hike, spent a record amount of money — $160,116 — on the race, using direct mail, phone calls, and neighborhood canvassing to gain voters’ support. Pasadena residents voted to renew this tax in 1997 and 2007. 

Alongside its financial difficulties, the rapid change in technology beginning in the 1980s resulted in additional challenges for the library. Many of the resources traditionally found in books were now offered in electronic format via computers. In 1984, the Public Access Library System made the first electronic databases available to patrons. 

The need for computers would increase dramatically in the 1990s with the advent of the Internet. For the first time, patrons did not need librarians to help them answer many of their reference questions, and librarians used the World Wide Web to assist patrons who did request help. The library’s catalog and a broad range of information eventually became available on its Web site, enabling patrons to have remote access. The library had also offered computers and wireless Internet access at its facilities.

The city library has a long history of responding to the needs of its patrons, and by the 21st century it had adapted to the new technology as it had previously to a changing  population, budget cutbacks, and patrons’ needs for more than a century. 

For more information, see


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