History of the Oakland Public Library

The Oakland Free Library opened to the public as a municipal entity November 7, 1878. It was the second public library founded in California (after Eureka) under the Rogers Free Library Act of 1878, an act of legislation allowing cities to levy taxes for the support of public libraries. The library had its origin in the Oakland Library Association, a subscription library established ten years earlier in 1868. Once the Rogers Act made it possible, the Trustees of the Oakland Library Association put into action the plan that would transfer all of its assets - building, books, furniture, and librarian - to the city of Oakland.

Early Librarians

The Oakland Free Library was personified in its earliest years by its librarian, Ina Donna Coolbrith. She was a well-known poet, later to become California's first Poet Laureate. Miss Coolbrith was succeeded by her nephew, Henry F. Peterson, in 1893. Charles S. Greene, poet and former editor of the Overland Monthly, took his place in 1899 and served the city until 1926.

Services to Children

Library services for children began in 1904 with the opening of the Main Library at 14th and Grove Streets, now the home of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO). A Children's Room was established in that building that quickly became a center for activities and programs. Today, every Oakland Public Library branch has a children's collection and specialized staff to assist children and families.

Reference Service

Oakland's first reference librarian was Frederick Irons Bamford. Hired by Henry F. Peterson in 1895, Bamford established Oakland's first reference collection. The Main Library continues to house the library's strongest reference collection today, but each branch library now has its own smaller reference collection.

Telephonic reference was established in 1911.

Electronic reference by e-mail and live chat was made available to the public in 2002.

Library Technology

First card catalog, ca. 1890s.

Card catalog abandoned in favor of computer based catalogs: 1989.

Main Library

The first Main Library (1878-1902) was situated on the north side of 14th Street, facing Washington, on the site of the present City Hall. The second Main Library (1902-1951) still stands at 14th Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way and is now the home of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO). The present Main Library, which occupies the block bounded by 14th and 13th Streets and Oak and Madison, opened in 1951. 


The precursors of our modern branches began in 1878 with Reading Rooms in West and East Oakland under the sponsorship of the Oakland Free Library. These reading rooms provided no circulating books, but provided newspapers and magazines to be read on-site.

Branches expanded under City Librarian Charles Greene (1899-1926) to cover all areas of the city. During the period, branch libraries adopted the service model that we recognize today.

César E. Chávez Branch

The César E. Chávez Branch Library, formerly the Latin American Library Branch, was founded in 1966. It was one of the first public libraries in the United States to offer services and materials in Spanish, and was the first branch library exclusively dedicated to the Spanish-speaking community in the United States. The branch opened at its current site in the Fruitvale Transit Village in February 2004. The César E. Chávez Branch is fully bilingual offering information services and collections in Spanish and English.

Asian Branch

Specialized services to Oakland's Asian community began in 1975, when the Asian Branch Library was founded as part of a Federal Library Services Construction Act grant to create a model library serving the Asian community in Oakland with multilingual staff and collections. Originally located at the Park Boulevard Branch, the Asian Branch Library moved in 1978 to the Main Library in downtown Oakland and again, in 1981, to Ninth Street at Broadway. As part of the Oakland Chinatown Redevelopment Project, the current location of the Asian Branch Library in the Pacific Renaissance Plaza opened to the public in 1995.

Recent branch renewals include Rockridge (1996), Eastmont (1998), Temescal (1999), Melrose (2000), and Golden Gate (2000).

African American Museum and Library at Oakland

The Northern California Center for African American History and Life merged with the Oakland Public Library in 1994 and was renamed the African American Museum and Library at Oakland. Formerly housed in the Golden Gate Branch Library, AAMLO moved into the renovated Charles S. Greene building in 2002. AAMLO provides a comprehensive reference collection on the black experience in the United States and is the home of a unique archive of original material spotlighting the history of African Americans in Northern California. AAMLO has hosted a series of major exhibitions, as well as author readings and other community events.


Bookmobile service began in 1965. In 2004, the library took possession of a new, 32 square foot bookmobile.

A long history of innovative services

  • Temescal Tool Lending Library opened in 1999 in the Temescal Branch Library
  • PASS! (Partners for Achieving School Success) After-School Homework Program began in 1994
  • Second Start Adult Literacy project began in 1984
  • Cityline began in 1997 as a partnership between the library and Volunteers for Oakland. It provided Oakland residents with information about city programs, services, and regulations. Cityline continues today as the Oaklanders Assistance Center under the wing of the Mayor's office.
  • TeenZone, a special area in the Main Library devoted to young adults, was created in 2002.