Oakland Main Library turns 70!

The Main Library marks its 70th birthday on January 7.

Seventy years ago, on January 7, 1951, Oaklanders gathered shoulder to shoulder on 14th Street in numbers that made traffic impassable to be the first ones to visit a new, modern library. The previous Main Library, the handsome Carnegie building located on 14th and Grove (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Way), was nearly 50 years old and too small to accommodate the population which had exploded during the Second World War. After years of citizens campaigning for a larger library, a bond measure was passed in 1945 to finance the new library.

The new central library was to be located on a key block of the planned Civic Center, a municipal district that clustered government agencies and cultural organizations around the western end of Lake Merritt. To make way for the project, several houses and an old music conservatory had to be torn down. Designed by the firm of  Miller and Warnecke, the library construction didn’t begin until 1948. The cornerstone was laid by the Native Sons of the Golden West in May 1949. The firm of Stolte, Inc. won the construction contract to build the new central library at a cost of $1.3 million. 

At its opening the new main library housed five reference divisions: Science and Technology, Sociology, General Reference and Documents, History, and Literature. There was also a California Room for the study of state history, the Teen-age Room (on the top floor), and a Boys and Girls Room (now called the Children’s Room). From the start, the Main Library has been a repository of state and federal government documents, including 30,000 military maps. Both the staff and library patrons were likely pleased that the new library had three times more square footage than the old Carnegie library. Its concrete and steel infrastructure assured its sturdiness. Its airy atrium and wood-paneled lobby exemplified the popular Mid-century Modern style of the era.

Featured in the September 1951 issue of Architect and Engineer magazine, the new Main was touted as a fine example of a modern urban architecture. In that issue, the writer noted: “Design of the structure is such that an entire additional floor can be added at any time in the future that more space may be needed, thus providing for future growth and expansion…”

In a letter to the Governor’s Office about the library’s planned opening ceremony, Library Director Peter T. Conmy wrote:

“The new main library should be 1) [a] center of reference, research and bibliography, 2) an agency of democratic development, 3) a social welfare unit operating for the welfare of children and teenagers.” 

At the opening ceremony California Governor Earl Warren gave the keynote address and members of the Native Sons of the Golden West installed a time capsule that still sits just outside the main entrance.

The Oakland Main Library is now an old workhorse of a building, operating under the strain of technological demands that its builders couldn't have conceived of in the late 1940s when it was designed. The library, closed to the public, is largely empty now due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s more than a little sad to see these once-bustling hallways, usually filled with people perusing the historic photo gallery, browsing the DVDs collections, or heading to the reference desks or public programs, empty now. But be assured that the library staff is working hard to continue providing our community with quality service even during the closure. We appreciate the support you have given us over the years.

Happy 70th birthday, Main!