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Past meets future at the new Central Library

Revamped California Room holds secrets to your house’s history

Michael Good | House Calls

One hundred years ago there was one item of furniture that no new house could do without: a bookcase.

In 1787, the year the Constitution was signed, the literacy rate in the United States was 60 percent. By 1910, it was 92 percent. With advances in printing, binding and paper manufacturing, the cost of the typical book went down by half between 1828 and 1853.

“Postcard of the horse and buggy era, Carnegie Library Building, San Diego Public Library, early 1900s” (Courtesy San Diego Public Library)

“Postcard of the horse and buggy era, Carnegie Library Building, San Diego Public Library, early 1900s” (Courtesy San Diego Public Library)

And the cost of mailing a letter went down by half, from six cents in 1863 to two cents in 1885. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Reading and writing in this country changed qualitatively during the 19th century. Reading went from something you did in public, Sunday school or for moral edification to something you did in private, at home, at school and, of course, at the library.

The public library was as essential for a civilized city as the bookcase was for the sophisticated household. In the late 19th century, Andrew Carnegie began endowing libraries around the country (he helped finance 174 in California alone).

In 1902, San Diego got its own Carnegie library, a sturdy, studious, classically designed temple of learning that served the city until 1952, when it was torn down. Served might not be the right word: during that time the population went from 17,700 to 333,865. A replacement was completed in 1954, and among its improvements was an inner sanctum devoted to local history called the California Room.

Local historians have had to do without the California Room since early summer while the new Central Library, which has been on the books, so to speak, for about 50 years, was being completed and fully stocked. On Sept. 30 the new and expanded California Room opened, along with the rest of the library.

If your house has a built-in bookcase (or a patched floor in the living room where the bookcase once stood), the California Room should be your first stop when touring the facility. The room is in an exalted place – the penthouse suite of the nine-story building – and the view is stunning, particularly on a dry, clear, 85-degree day in early October.

Even if you don’t crack a book, you can look down on Grant Hill, Golden Hill, Barrio Logan and the eastern territories of Downtown, and contemplate this magical setting between sea and sky that enticed people from all over the world to chase the California dream to the edge of America.

In light of all that, and in the spirit of our amazingly optimistic ancestors who reinvented themselves on these shores, I’d hoped the California Room had been reinvented itself. I was somewhat disappointed.

With progress, it’s always one-and-a-half steps forward, one-and-a-quarter steps back. As a chagrined librarian admitted, the newspaper collection – essential for researching builders and homeowners – is now six floors down (in the old building, it was right next door). Floor space, however, looks to have quadrupled and the library itself is twice the size of its predecessor.

There is now a lot more room to move around in, more tables to work on (and plug a laptop into), and more computers to use for research. The main addition, in the center of the room, is more genealogy texts, courtesy of the San Diego Genealogical Society.

While this is the place to start your home research, you’ll still have to visit City offices to “chase the deed” – trace the chain of ownership of your house backward from you to the first owner – find out when the water meter was installed (and therefore when the house was completed), and get the death and marriage records for all the people involved.

(l to r) From the Marilyn and Gene Marx Special Collections room, books and specialized equipment help search San Diego history. (Courtesy San Diego Public Library)

(l to r) From the Marilyn and Gene Marx Special Collections room, books and specialized equipment help search San Diego history. (Courtesy San Diego Public Library)

Back in the California room, you should start with the City directories. The directory lists the addresses and occupations for most San Diegans by year. Starting in the early 1920s, the directory works in reverse as well, meaning you can look up your address and find out who lived there in that year.

If your house was built before the reverse directories were printed, you can still discover who lived there, using your powers of deduction and a little luck and persistence. Both the census and the voter registration rolls are listed sequentially by location, so once you establish who lived in your house in the first reverse directory, you can look up their neighbors in the voter registration rolls and deduce who lived in your house in prior years by looking for the address.

The address won’t show up in the census, which is done every ten years, but the households are listed in the order that the census taker recorded them.

Both the census and voter lists, as well as ship manifests, marriage licenses, death certificates, city directories, wedding notices, newspaper articles, school yearbooks and church records, can be found on ancestry.com. The library has a subscription, and the librarians can get you started there in the California Room. You also can access ancestry.com remotely with your library card.

Researching historical figures, particularly if they are in some way associated with you, is both fun and frustrating. You’ll get the sort of intermitted rewards that are essential to certain forms of dog and dolphin training. You will feel a bit like Sherlock Holmes, though not as kicky as the Robert Downey Jr. version or as twitchy as the Jeremy Brett version.

There are few smoking guns in this sort of detective work, but through a lot of deduction, inference and circumstantial evidence you will solve some old mysteries and discover some new ones. You may not get a confession out of your subjects, though you’ll likely encounter some revealing denial. If you look up your own ancestry, be prepared: you may discover that your past was not everything your parents made it out to be.

As for the library itself, it’s a work in progress. The lights kept going out in the California Room on the two days I visited, and because of budget constraints, the building isn’t fully staffed and the hours are still curtailed.

You’ll find only two elevators to the ninth floor, and the doors to the elevators do what doors to elevators have always done: close on your arm no matter how much you wave it and how many times someone inside pushes the “hold the door” button.

Though some things never change (and some change for the worse), the new Central Library is something to be celebrated after all these years. Andrew Carnegie would be impressed. And not just by the view.

—Michael Good is a contractor and freelance writer. His business, Craftsman Wood Refinishing, restores architectural millwork in historic houses in San Diego. He is a fourth-generation San Diegan and lives in North Park. You can reach him at housecallssdun@gmail.com.

2 Comments

  1. Rick Crawford says:

    Nice piece Michael. I’d make just one correction: the newspaper collection–the one researchers use–is still with us on the 9th floor. Only current subscriptions: today’s Wall St. Journal, NY Times, etc., has moved to the 3rd floor.
    Rick–Special Collections.

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