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February 2012: African American History Month

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This essay and selection of recommended books was compiled in honor of February’s designation as African American History Month. As I often say on our regular Wednesday noon tours, the Mechanics’ Institute is the oldest library in the west, but that isn’t quite true. It’s the oldest known library that still exists in these parts. Gold Rush era San Francisco actually had several libraries that predate us. The hordes of people who came from all over the world in response to that nugget of gold found at Sutter’s Fort were voracious readers - the best sellers of the day were Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Scarlet Letter, Leaves of Grass, Walden, Ten-Nights in a Bar Room, Moby Dick, and my favorite, Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable - and so there was a great need for libraries. While many were probably as simple as a bookshelf of circulating titles in a boarding house; established libraries with their own building, an organized collection of books, and a staff were relatively few. As there was no tax system yet in place to support a “public library” (the San Francisco Public Library, funded by tax dollars would not be founded until 1877), those libraries that did exist, unless they were the pet project of a rich person, operated on the ‘subscription’ model as the Mechanics’ Institute currently does today. The year 1853-1854 would prove to be a banner year for libraries in the City. The Mercantile Association, the first “established” library was founded in 1853. The Mechanics’ Institute (with whom the Mercantile merged in 1906) was founded in 1854 but, as I recently discovered, another Library opened its doors just before we did: the San Francisco Athenaeum and Literary Association, an organization that could very well have been the first black circulating library in the west. The San Francisco Athenaeum and Literary Association catered to the small but growing black population of San Francisco. It was organized in 1853 by William H. Newby, a freeborn Philadelphian who had come to California in 1851. A photographer and newspaper man, Newby, with the help of Mifflin Gibbs (who later became the first black jurist in the nation and the U.S. Consult to Madagascar), founded the Athenaeum and Literary Association as a meeting place for African American men and women from all echelons of San Francisco society. The Athenaeum’s library, reading rooms, and saloon (awesome!) – though not listed in the San Francisco City Directory - were housed in a two story building on Washington above Stockton according to one source. Its notable library consisted of some eight hundred volumes and periodicals from around the world and within its first year, it boasted seventy members and receipts totaling $2,000. A remarkable achievement considering that the African American community of San Francisco was less than 400 people in the early 1850’s (there were many more living in the gold producing counties). While the Athenaeums’ existence was relatively short-lived, its spirit went on to form the San Francisco African American Historical and Cultural Society an organization still thriving today on Fulton Street. While the Mechanics’ Institute does not have a special “African American” collection, it does collect books on topics specifically of interest to African Americans and has recently added several new titles of merit. To find more books just ask a librarian on the 3rd floor of the library or send an email to [email protected].

Posted on Feb. 1, 2012 by Taryn Edwards