The public library in Redlands, California is much more than a steward of books and information. It is an exemplar of the history of the town and a living legend of its spirit of generosity, a hallmark of Redlands since its first days.
Redlands, longtime a citrus town and at the edge of the sloping foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, was founded in 1881 by Frank Brown, a Yale-educated civil engineer and Edward Judson, a former Wall Street broker, who donated more than 10,000 trees to help settle the town in its earliest days. One of the first things you notice today, if you take a break from the I-10 between L.A. and Palm Springs to exit at Redlands, are the tall, elegant Washingtonia palms lining the broad streets of century-old Victorian, Colonials, and California Craftsman houses.
Even before the town was incorporated in 1888, its residents had built a YMCA. And they soon began angling for a public library. Alfred Smiley, a Quaker and founding partner with his brothers of the historic Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York, who spent his winters in Redlands was a prime promoter of the library. I felt I nearly knew the man from his words:
But what is this library for? For whom is it intended? Is it a working man’s club? No! It is for all the people of Redlands, rich and poor – old and young – to share alike in all of its advantages. And if there come in there a man in his shirt sleeves, who is a lover of books, and who cannot afford a coat to his back, he should be received with the same courtesy and attention as if he were dressed in purple and fine linen.
The Redlands Public Library, as it was called then, opened its doors as a reading room on the first floor of the town’s YMCA building in the spring of 1894. The town’s residents had voted to tax themselves to build the library, despite being in the midst of a national depression. We’ve seen similar examples along our American Futures tour of what Larry Burgess, former Redlands library director, calls “civic audacity” when citizens of Columbus, Ohio and Charleston, West Virginia have voted in tax measures to keep their libraries going strong even in times of economic challenge.
This was just the beginning. Alfred Smiley huddled with his twin brother, Albert, about taking the library to the next step – giving it a proper building and a beautiful setting. (This is a complete aside, but I can never see a photo of the Smiley twins without thinking of the Smith Brothers Cough Drops) Albert quietly borrowed money, bought up surrounding land, and commissioned a wonderful Moorish Revival building by architect T.R. Griffith, which was noticed across the state. The town renamed the library in honor of Albert, the A.K. Smiley Public Library (AKSPL). The library stands today as a national historic landmark.
And the story gets even better. In 1910, Andrew Carnegie himself came to town to visit the library and celebrate his good friend Albert’s 82nd birthday. Carnegie was in his heyday of building more than 2500 libraries across the U.S. and Europe at that time, 142 of them in California alone. Here are the affectionate, admiring, and even puckish remarks he delivered in Redlands during his visit:
This is the first time it has ever been my privilege to sign my name in the visitor’s book of a library which I had not founded, it gives me the greatest pleasure, the more so, as it is the gift of my dear and honored friend, Mr. Smiley. Before giving libraries I waited until I had this useless dross that men call money, because it is useless until it is put to some good use, and he could not wait. His love for the cause impelled him to give and he actually borrowed money – borrowed the money, I say, to build this magnificent structure.
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