San Diego Library’s history of inclusion

Posted: August 17th, 2018 | Featured, Valley Voices | No Comments

By Karen Reilly

Although libraries in the 21st century are often thought of as bastions of inclusivity, in fact, until the 1960s, libraries in the South were often closed to African-Americans. The Carnegie Library built in Atlanta in 1902 excluded African-Americans by law. In Louisville, Kentucky, the city opened a separate (but not equal) library for African-American patrons. Atlanta did not provide any library services for African-Americans until 1921, when it likewise built a separate branch.

And as the American Library Association (ALA) noted at their annual conference in New Orleans this year, Southern libraries were not at the forefront of the civil rights movement, either. Libraries in Jackson, Mississippi; Greenville, South Carolina; Columbus, Georgia; and Hattiesburg, Mississippi (among others) were the subject of sit-ins and demonstrations by civil rights protesters during the 1960s because they continued to exclude African-Americans. On June 24, the ALA passed a resolution apologizing “to African-Americans for wrongs committed against them in segregated public libraries,” and commending those “who risked their lives to integrate public libraries for their bravery and courage.”

The San Diego Library LGBTQIA Library Services Committee. (Courtesy City of San Diego)

Like Atlanta’s library, San Diego’s first Central Library was built in 1902, and funded by a generous grant from Andrew Carnegie. Unlike Atlanta, however, there is no evidence today that it ever excluded patrons on the basis of race, and its staff was integrated by the early 1950s, when the library hired its first African-American clerk. By 1968, there were more African-American staff, including four professional librarians.

Today, libraries around the country work hard to show that as public spaces, they are open and affirmatively provide services to everyone. For example, the San Diego Public Library has a committee devoted to services to the LGBTQIA community, and we have three veterans resource centers around the system (including one at the Mission Valley Branch) to provide specialized services to veterans. In addition, the Mission Valley Branch is one of several libraries in the system which hosts storytimes specifically for children with sensory differences, such as children on the autism spectrum. Most libraries have book collections in foreign languages, including Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, Persian and Arabic.

Because San Diego is one of the top three hotspots for sex trafficking in the state of California, we have also created Out of the Shadows, a program designed to raise public awareness about the problem of sex trafficking in our city, bring to light the plight of sex trafficking victims and at-risk youth, and provide resources and support services for those in need in the San Diego area.

Homelessness is a very visible issue in San Diego, and we similarly try to respond with compassion and offer services when possible. The Central Library’s Veterans Resource Center features trained volunteers available to help veterans and their families find support and benefits. The Central Library also offers a Center for Mental Health Services with open hours during the week. Similarly, the Mission Valley Branch Library partners with the nonprofit Vista Hill Bridges to have outreach workers on site to refer patrons experiencing homelessness to services. As the city of San Diego continues to explore comprehensive solutions for homelessness, we are committed to treating all library patrons with respect.

Stay tuned later this month for the announcement of this year’s One Book, One San Diego pick, which we promise you will find an innovative and inspired choice!

— Karen E. Reilly is branch manager of the Mission Valley Library. Reach her at

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