‘Pomona Library in the Great Depression’


Below is a new, and fascinating, report by the Pomona Public Library on how the institution fared during the Great Depression: The staff took pay cuts, curtailed book and magazine purchases and examined patrons’ bags to avert theft. The library was able to stay open 12 hours per day, six days per week. Similar solutions today are unlikely, but the document is timely given that closing the library entirely is a possibility.

(Tonight’s Pomona council agenda includes a proposal to keep the library going at one-fourth the current cost by outsourcing operations and tapping money set aside for sidewalk and street repair, an illustration of the dire straits in which the city finds itself.)

What follows is the library’s report, in full.


Characterized by many difficult problems caused by the worldwide depression, the
year nevertheless has brought unusual opportunities for service. In the economic
stress there has been a tendency to fall back upon the library as a source of inspiration
and helpfulness as well as entertainment and instruction, and more than ever we are
impressed with the fact that the public library is the heart of the community.
-Pomona Library Annual Report, 1933.

Every day observations in the library impress us anew with the thought that the library is the heart of the community, and that it is the single spot in the whole town which makes everyone equally welcome, and, as someone has said, “enables the least privileged to really feel at home in the democracy of the mind.”
-Pomona Library Annual Report, 1934

It has been noted that not a single public library in America closed its doors during the
Great Depression of the 1930’s. In fact, new public libraries were started in 48 of the 50
states and territories between 1930-1940. A reading of Depression era Pomona Public
Library Annual Reports, which were prepared by the Board of Library Trustees and
longtime City Librarian, Sarah Jacobus, confirms that the community and the Library
survived the depths of the Depression without having to close the library or substantially
reduce library service.

During the worst Depression years of 1931-1934, the reports show that Library service
continued without interruption, although not without stress. In 1931, the Library was
open 353 days of the year, 7 days a week, 12 hours per day, including 3 hours on Sunday. The Library’s operating budget was just over $41,000, and the Library employed 18.5 Staff. Of the City’s 20,000 residents, 14,000 were library card holders.

By 1934, Sunday service was no longer offered, but the library was still open 302 days
of the year, for 12 hours a day, 72 hours per week, from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., Monday
thru Saturday. The budget had been cut by nearly 33% from 1931, down to $27,000. But
the Library still employed 18 people. Roughly 75% of the City’s residents were library
card holders.

The Library’s cost savings were achieved mostly by salary savings and staff salary
reductions. In the 1933 Report, Librarian Jacobus expressed her sincere gratitude to a
Staff that “has carried on gallantly, in spite of crowded rooms, increased work-load, and
decreased pay.” (Miss Jacobus’ $225 a month salary was reduced by 10% that year.)

Additional savings came from other small economies of operation. Fewer new books
were bought, and duplicate copies of the most popular titles were rarely added. Worn
books were not mended, and “only books of permanent values and those of immediate
practical use” were bought. To highlight those titles already in the collection, the
library adopted the slogan, “Any book you haven’t read is a new book” Most newspaper
subscription were cancelled, and so were some of the less significant magazine titles.
Library users paid a small fee to read the newest works of fiction.

In addition, to prevent what Miss Jacobus termed the ‘”unauthorized or permanent
borrowing” of materials that depleted the book stock, patrons’ books were inspected
for the first time at the library exit. Ms. Jacobus described this unprecedented security
measure as both “necessary” and “fairly successful.”

For a month in the spring of 1932, the Library experimented with closing weekdays at
6:00 p.m., in order to save the cost of lighting and heating the old Carnegie building, and
to save somewhat on salaries. According to that year’s Report, the new hours “brought the institution to the greater attention of the public”, and as a result “there seemed to come a fuller realization of the large part the institution plays in the daily life of this community.”

Evening hours were soon restored, and the community urged that “if further retractions
were necessary in public expenditures, they should not be made in the library.”

Board President A.T. Richardson noted in the 1932 Report, the Library’s records “reflect
the unusual conditions which have prevailed, as a result of economic stress throughout
the world”, and that increased use of the Library for the previous 36 months was the
direct result of increased unemployment. “That the Library has found this opportunity
for increased usefulness by enabling unemployed people to improve their condition by
reading and study during their unoccupied time” wrote Richardson, “brings satisfaction to
all friends of the institution.”

Not only did the Library provide readers with books and information about current social
and economic problem, the Library also provided what the report called “relief work” in
the community. For instance, patrons with delinquent accounts were permitted to work
out charges instead of paying money. “Most people have appreciated this privilege”
wrote Librarian Jacobus, and “the effect on juvenile debtors is wholesome”. And, in
addition to accepting reductions in their salaries, the Library Staff voluntarily made
regular contributions to a fund for “employing needy persons at library tasks.”

Nearly eighty years after these reports were written, another economic downturn
threatens public library service in Pomona. Librarian Jacobus concluded her 1934 report
with a summary of the situation that seems to describe the current situation as well:

“The world is in a new phase, but fundamental principles are unaltered. First: simplication of technique can be carried only so far; beyond that point, labor is increased instead of diminished. In spite of hard times, we have remembered the future, and have maintained all essential practices. Second: that an educational institution should simply maintain its routine may appear for a very short time to be sufficient; but it is soon evident that where there is no progress, there must be retrogression.

“If there is no margin of time to search for difficult questions, to plan for the future, the library will fall from its high standard, and the taxpayers will be deprived of their due service. We are cheerfully and patiently doing our best in present conditions, but we hope for the day when it will be possible to give better service, and new types of service, such as a changing society must have.”

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