Kern County Library

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When Beale Memorial Library formally opened in Bakersfield in the summer of 1900, it marked an important point in our community’s history.

Prior to that day—June 2—there had only been grassroots book lending groups and small organizations attempting to gather the resources to officially give Kern County a library.

According to a book published by the Kern County Library to commemorate Beale’s Centennial, A Century of Progress, it all started back in 1866, the same year that the County of Kern was incorporated. Citizens banded together in order to establish a library by forming a small association in Havilah (which was the county seat before Bakersfield took over the title in 1874). It took six years, but the Library and Social Club had raised $100 by 1872. Two years later, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union Library Company began providing books for members at $1 per share and the club also built a small house in which to keep the collections and hold their meetings.

Books travel to the people, as children flock to the Kern County Free Library Southgate District Bookmobile, 1920s.

Books travel to the people, as children flock to the Kern County Free Library Southgate District Bookmobile, 1920s.

Sadly, that structure burned down during the Great Bakersfield Fire of 1889 (the devastating blaze that took down nearly 200 buildings but that most historians claim was the impetus to rebuild Bakersfield into a metropolitan city instead of a frontier area) but the books were saved. Still, it took a few years for things to get back on track. In 1895, young men began a circulating library in a local bookstore known as “McDonald’s” and the annual fee was just $1. The following year, the Women’s Club of Bakersfield created a member library, with each woman contributing a book to the collection or donating the equivalent sum of money. Hilariously, any men who wanted to belong to the club were allowed—but at a membership fee of $2 and they could only borrow books on Fridays.

It was in 1884 that the Kern Library Association was officially organized in what is now East Bakersfield (at that time it was the city of Kern) in order to maintain a reading room and lending library. As described in A Century of Progress, “city trustees offered the association a former schoolhouse, which was moved to a lot on Baker Street. In February 1896, it was turned over to the city of Kern, becoming the first library in the county with public support.”

Then came Beale, named so because the property where the library stood had been deeded to the City of Bakersfield by Truxtun Beale and Mary E. Beale in honor of Edward Beale. The mission-style building cost a whopping $8,000 and the previous library organizations then donated their collections to Beale.

Kenny Bowles with a good book, Kern County Library, 1962.

Kenny Bowles with a good book, Kern County Library, 1962.

“With the consolidation of Bakersfield and Kern in 1910, the Kern Public Library became the East Bakersfield Branch. By then the Beale Memorial Library had become so overcrowded that a portion of the collection had to be moved to a wing of City Hall. In November 1914, it was remodeled and furnished at a cost of $7,700,” the book explained.

The year 1912 saw the first six branches established (Delano, Randsburg, Oil Center, Maricopa, Glennville, and Pattiway) and a new building for the East Bakersfield Branch opened July 8, 1915, on the corner of Baker and Oregon streets. Records show that it initially held 10,000 books and had an average circulation of 350 per day!

Bakersfield hosts Black Gold District of California Library Association in 1964. Lois Rainey, Muriel Parker, and Mila de Laveaga (L-R).

Bakersfield hosts Black Gold District of California Library Association in 1964. Lois Rainey, Muriel Parker, and Mila de Laveaga (L-R).

Heading up these early years were some amazing women and men. Bertha Kumli was the very first County Librarian (1911-1912) and under her leadership, nine branches were opened. In 1911, however, Kumli was the only library employee, doing all the work herself—purchasing, shelving, circulation—until more staff could be hired.“According to a history of the library compiled in 1967, Kumli was invited to catalogue the private library of Luther Burbank, the renowned horticulturist, but declined the honor to continue her work in Kern County. She resigned her county librarian position when she married John Schurch.”

Unbelievably, even by 1913 there were only 15 employees running the 16 branches. But the collection was small enough that “branch custodians, as librarians were then called, could remember what books were available.”

Interior of East Bakersfield (Baker) Branch, 1926.

Interior of East Bakersfield (Baker) Branch, 1926.

Julia Babcock was next in line. Between 1916 and 1933 she put education first by involving the library in 121 schools around the county and donating book collections to the students. Babcock would visit these schools throughout the year (by 1920, she was using a Ford purchased for this purpose), until these visits were advised against by the Grand Jury, which ironically claimed that these visits by the librarian detracted from the students’ learning. Babcock would even drive books out to the oilfields in the Model T that had been outfitted with shelves on the side panel. In 1932, she suggested the idea of a Local History collection, seeking to index articles from local newspapers. It has been reported that Kern was one of a small number of libraries in California that first started indexing its newspapers.

Wasco Branch Library Children’s Department, 1926.

Wasco Branch Library Children’s Department, 1926.

John D. Henderson operated the library before Gretchen Knief took over in 1937.

Knief was known for her strong stance against burning books, specifically The Grapes of Wrath.

When the book was banned in 1939 by the Kern County Board of Supervisors, which ordered it removed from library shelves, Knief, who had been unaware of the decision until the books were gone, wrote a letter to the Board, saying, “[B]anning books is so utterly hopeless and futile. Ideas don’t die because a book is forbidden reading. If Steinbeck has written truth, that truth will survive.” Despite her stance, the book remained banned. Ever so cool, in response, Knief distributed 60 copies of the book to public libraries statewide.

Tehachapi Branch Library, 1920s.

Tehachapi Branch Library, 1920s.

The ‘40s brought with them the challenges of war. Though the main library had far outgrown the space it had, and different collections were housed in different areas of town (even City Hall as mentioned before), funds and focuses were shifted to helping win the war.

During this time, “the library operated a panel truck for visits to schools and isolated areas of the county.” Kern County was the third county in the entire state to have a bookmobile. The vehicle was a pickup truck built by C.N. Johnston Body Works here in town.

This determination to bring books and joy to the community was exactly what was needed after the 1952 earthquakes. Beale was operating from a large circus tent while the rubble was cleared away (the roof collapsed, as well), but the bookmobile was open the very next day—and “even carried a movie projector and screen to some stops where movies were shown in the dark.”

The next five decades would see growth and changes in programs, buildings, collections, and staff. Sometimes resources were plentiful, and other times not so much; times folks today still remember from their childhoods. But the library continued to operate in both feast and famine, giving Kern County residents a place to learn about the world and discover amazing stories.

And as history has proven, it will continue to do so.

Source: A Century of Progress, published by the Kern County Library. Photos courtesy of Kern County Library.

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