Library Past, Present & Future

Library History

The San Francisco Law Library was established in 1865 during the still wild-and-woolly post-Gold Rush days. At the time, San Francisco had a population of 119,000, 376 of whom practiced law. A group of leading attorneys formed the San Francisco Law Library Association to provide a law library for its members. By 1869, the library had 2,000 volumes, but it was apparent that a library supported by private funds could not serve the entire bar, courts and government departments. As a result, Association and bar members petitioned the state legislature to establish a public law library. In 1870, the County Law Library Act was enacted and the San Francisco Law Library became the first county law library in the state.

The 1906 Earthquake

From 1870 to the present, there have been only 11 library directors. One of the very early librarians was Frank P. Deering, who was succeeded by his brother, James H. Deering in 1888. James Deering served as librarian for forty years. It was during James Deering's tenure that the library gained national status following the earthquake and fire of April, 1906. The ensuing fire destroyed 46,000 volumes, most of the collection, and City Hall. Books salvaged from the destruction were taken to the balcony pews of the Temple Sherith Israel on the corner of California and Webster Streets. The Temple allowed its building to be used both for the library and as a courthouse during the post-quake reconstruction.

Under the leadership of Deering and the board of trustees, collection rebuilding began immediately after the earthquake, in many cases through generous donations from law libraries and private collections across the country. Within a year, the collection had been rebuilt to 7,580 volumes. By 1916, when the library moved into the newly constructed City Hall, the collection had grown to 37,720 volumes.

The 1989 Earthquake

City Hall was damaged during the October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake: marble cracked and fell off walls, stairways and elevators were damaged, and the dome may have shifted. In the library stacks, storage areas, and many shelves collapsed or toppled. About 25% of the collection fell to the floor and much of it suffered broken spines and lost covers. The library was temporarily closed as staff reshelved displaced materials. However, in less than a week the library was again offering limited access and services.

Move Out of City Hall & Library Space Crisis

In 1995, City Hall was closed for repairs and a seismic retrofit. The Library was relocated temporarily to the Veterans War Memorial Building across the street from City Hall, where it was to stay for 2 years until City Hall reopened. The temporary quarters were insufficient to house the Law Library’s full collection so close to 2/3 of the collection was placed in inaccessible storage. Seating, staff and public areas were severely reduced at the Veterans Building location, and shelving was designed to accommodate no more than three years’ occupancy. Unfortunately, the Library remains at this temporary location more than 14 years later. It was not returned to City Hall when it reopened pending a move to a better, permanent location in the Civic Center.

The Future

The Library’s Greatest Challenge

The Law Library’s space crisis is its greatest and most critical challenge. The Library has been stranded in grossly insufficient quarters since 1995. These quarters were only intended for 3 years’ occupancy; their deficiencies prevent the Law Library from full access to its collection, as well as restrict the services the Library can provide. Although the Law Library Board of Trustees has worked tirelessly since 1995 to resolve the crisis, the City and County of San Francisco has not provided a solution or funding to move the Law Library into a permanent library facility.