The San Benito County Free Library was founded by the San Benito County Board of Supervisors, on February 4, 1917. The county library was first housed in the old County Courthouse. The Board of Supervisors’ appointed Miss Mabel Coulter as the Librarian in 1918.
After the Veterans Memorial Building at 647 San Benito Street was completed in 1927, the county library moved into a section of the building what is now the Univeristy of California Extension Office. Florence Townsend, well known in the community, was the librarian in the mid 40’s. In August, 1947, she was presented with an original script of Romance Del Rancho San Justo (A History of Hollister and San Benito County) by the author Charles E. Pressley to place in the library’s historical collection.
The first certified County Librarian was Barbara Nelson, who provided excellent library services to the community during her two years as county librarian in the mid 50’s. She was followed by County Library Director Kathryn Dooling whose family was well known in San Benito County. The Doolings who came to the United States from Ireland had settled in San Benito County in 1868. The families had a penchant for ranching but a talent for law as well. Two characteristics have dominated the Dooling progeny: a love of the land and a love of scholarship. (Dooling family cited from East of the Gabilans by Majorie Pierce, Valley Publishers, c1976.) The Hollister Public Library was instituted in Hollister in 1884.
The city librarians in the years 1909 to 1913 were Olive Evans Hawkins, Jennie Stevens and Mrs. George Varcoe. The Hollister Public Library was moved into the Andrew Carnegie Building, which is now City Hall at 375 5th St. The building was built in 1911 on a $10,000 grant from the Andrew Carnegie Library Foundation. The decision was made in August 1959 to consolidate the two existing local libraries, the Hollister Public Library and the San Benito County Free Library. Through the hard work and dedication of County Library Director Kathryn Dooling actual consolidation took place the following year, on September 12, 1960, when the two libraries moved into the newly completed library building at 470 5th Street, the present site of the San Benito County Free Library. (The city paid $45,988 in six annual installments towards the construction of the new library building.) Both libraries consisted essentially of collections of light reading materials with services characterized by reliance upon user self-help in a reading room environment.
Besides, the San Benito County Free Library for many years provided the only depository of written text for the many isolated rural schools. The library was, for many of the children attending schools from New Idria, to Jefferson, Cienega, Willow Grove, Panoche, Tres Pinos, Southside, Fairview, Fairhaven, etc., the only major contact to the larger community. These students had access to good literature and had the opportunity to learn in extremely isolated areas of the county. (A portion of the early library history mentioned above is referenced from The Evening Free Lance, November 29, 1971. Review of a presentation made to the San Benito County Historical Society by then County Library Director Kathryn Dooling.)
In June 1979, the county’s second certified County Librarian, Jo Barrios Wahdan, was appointed and a gradual but steady expansion of library services began. The collection was weeded and enhanced with emphasis on current non-fiction. A children’s story hour, adult reference services, a Spanish language and California/Local History collections, were developed and expanded. In February 1980, the Friends of the San Benito County Free Library was organized. Their mission is to serve as a valuable development resource and to advocate for the library. With the formation of the Friends group, came jointly sponsored library programming for a variety of age levels.
In 1982, a major accomplishment occurred when through the award of a federal grant, the library acquired a custom designed bookmobile enabling it to extend its services to the county’s scattered residents in the rural countryside. In 1986, the present facility was expanded to provide for handicapped access, a multi purpose meeting room, additional reading space and much needed public restrooms. This addition, limited though it was, has allowed greatly increased use of the library by local residents and groups and was made possible by funds provided from the County of San Benito, City of Hollister Redevelopment Agency, private donations and a federal Library Services and Construction Act, title II grant applied for by the County Librarian Jo Barrios Wahdan. Gary E. Strong, State Librarian, administered the funds through the California State Library. Additional donations were received from individuals, companies and organizations throughout the local service area.
In 1989, a Japanese collection was developed with funds donated by Ozeki Sake (USA) to serve the Japanese American community. The English collection representing Japanese culture was also supplemented during this period. INFOBASIC, the Community Resources Database, with over 200 providers of community services was developed in 1989 under a federal Library Services and Construction Act grant awarded to the San Benito County Free Library for Project SABER (Sharing Awareness of Better Resources) by the California State Library under the auspices of the statewide Partnerships for Change program.
In 1992, the San Benito County Free Library experienced a devastating decline in funding. (The library is supported from the San Benito County general fund. Over the years, State and Federal mandated programs have increased and county money remaining for discretionary programs such as libraries, parks, and recreation have decreased.) The library was able to remain open only because the County Librarian recruited and trained a large corps of volunteers. Today, the library is serving the rapidly growing population with a limited staff and a growing number of volunteers.
In 1993, through State Aid funds and funds received from grants, the County Librarian automated the library’s circulation and cataloging departments and installed a computerized public access catalog. Volunteers with computer knowledge and expertise assisted in the installation of the computer system. In 1994, the InfoPeople Project was made possible by a Federal Library Services and Construction Act grant. Four hundred libraries in California including the San Benito County Free Library received funds for Internet workstations to provide public access to the Internet, the world’s largest depository of electronic information. As a requirement of the grant, a Technology Advisory Group was formed with individuals representing the local community.
In 1997, a word processor for public use was made available. Although the library has been able to enhance some of its services, qualified staffing remains an area of critical need since the library still does not have other professional librarians such as a reference librarian. Consequently, phone reference service is not available. In November, library hours were expanded to include Saturday. In 1998, the library revived its INFOBASIC database of community resources. This database, containing over 200 records in both English and Spanish, became available on the Public Access Catalogue (PAC) and on the library’s Internet Home Page.
In the fall, the Public Access Catalogue was also added to the library’s Home Page. Patrons can now search over 65,000 items on the NetPac from any location. With the NetPac, the library can “virtually” open its doors to the public 24 hours a day via the Internet. A community Events page and several new links to Spanish sites were also added to the library’s Home Page. In 2000, a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided four new Internet computers for free use by the public. The Friends of the Library donated two additional computers, with the ISDN line donated by Hollister Internet. The Gates Computer Lab with six English language and two Spanish language Internet computers were made available for public use on March 16, 2000.
In December 2000, a professional reference librarian was made possible with funds received from the Public Library Fund administered by the California State Library. Thanks to local government cooperation (County and City government) and the State Public Library Fund, the library was beginning to experience a positive upward trend.
In 2002, the Live Homework Help Program was implemented on a statewide basis. This library was one of thirty-nine public library jurisdictions that participated in the program, which is intended to assist children and youth in grades 4 – 12 gain instant access to expert online tutors. The program focuses on core academic subjects—English, science, social studies and math—and allows students to receive a 20-minute homework help session at the library.
In 2003, the library experienced financial cuts that caused bookmobile service to be suspended indefinitely, and the loss of the reference librarian besides a reduction in the library’s book budget. On a positive note the library received a new roof in December 2003 and the library’s computer network system was upgraded from a dos based system to Windows XP during the same month.
The current computer system is Library.Solution with The Library Corporation. The public can access the library’s public access catalog and browse a collection of over 75,000 items via the Internet through the library’s Home Page as well as renew their books, view holds, view their check outs, do a hold request and request an item through interlibrary loan services. (Library’s Website: www.sbcfl.org).
On November 9, 2004, County Librarian, Jo Barrios Wahdan, retires after 25 years of service to the community. The retiring county librarian brought the joy of reading to thousands. She wanted equal access to the library for all the people in the community. Over the years she also developed an extensive collection of materials in Spanish and Japanese languages and revitalized the childrens’ collection. “There was nothing like getting kids excited when they come in and see new books,” she commented. She contributes her accomplishments over the years with the help of library staff, the Friends of the Library, and numerous volunteers.