Celebrating 50 Years of SBPL’s Eastside Library
Though the Eastside Library opened its doors in May 1973, this story begins in 1967.
In 1967, a Santa Barbara County Master Plan for library services was published. The plan included looking at population trends in various neighborhoods around Santa Barbara and identifying where and when branch libraries should be built. The library service plan proposed that branch libraries on the Northside of town and Milpas area should be built by 1970, followed by a branch on the Mesa by 1990.
In April 1968, the day before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, the Library Board of Trustees voted to prioritize the building of the Milpas Branch. Robert Hart, the Santa Barbara Public Library Director, observed that though the library’s bookmobile was able to serve children in the Milpas area, their parents and other adults and seniors were not being served by the library.
An advantage of prioritizing the Milpas Branch was that the City already owned property in the Franklin complex, and planning was underway for the Franklin Center to provide a host of social and recreational services for the community. The library was a perfect fit, there was just one problem–finding the money to build the Milpas Branch. There were many obstacles, but the Board of Library Trustees, the Library Director, the Eastside community, and the newly formed Martin Luther King Memorial Wing Committee were not easily dismayed.
Soon after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Katherine Belden, a librarian at Franklin School, conceived of the idea of building a memorial to Dr. King.
A group of people, led by Katherine, knowing that the Milpas Branch Library was in the planning stages of being built, felt that adding a wing to this library would be appropriate as a memorial to Dr King. The Wing was to be used as a cultural and educational meeting place for the Eastside community.
This committee was 100% community driven. In the spirit of engaging the eastside residents, local students were active on the fundraising efforts; the Memorial Wing fundraising bank account was managed by a locally owned bank on Milpas; and many of the Milpas businesses showed support for the project by donating to the campaign or hosting fundraising events.
No public funds were allocated for the MLK Memorial Wing, so the campaign worked diligently over four years to raise the $50,000 needed to build the Wing by seeking contributions from individuals, businesses, service organizations, the Santa Barbara Foundation, and enterprising young folks who organized bake sales, car washes, rummage sales, and the sale of $1 bookmarks which gave the buyer one square inch of space in the building.
The following is from the May 10, 1972, Eastside Library Groundbreaking Press Release:
“Modern groundbreaking for the Eastside Library and its Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Wing replaced the traditional shovel ceremony yesterday afternoon as Mrs. Frederic Slavin and Christopher Nicholas for the Memorial Wing and public library boards, Mayor Gerald Firestone for the City of Santa Barbara and the Reverend Leonard Wilkes for the NAACP mounted a bulldozer at the corner of Montecito & Voluntario Streets, site for the new building.”
Margaret Blanchard was Eastside Library’s first Branch Supervisor. Margaret, as well as three others of the Eastside Library staff, were bilingual and the library’s book collection focused heavily on Chicano history, books in Spanish, and materials supporting the cultural heritage of the Eastside’s Black community. Around the time that the Eastside Library was built, student enrollment at Franklin School indicated that 65% of the students had Spanish surnames, 22% of the students were Black, and the minority were white. Early images of the Eastside Library can be found in the library’s Edson Smith Photograph Collection.
Around 2:15 a.m., on the morning of May 1, 1980, a fire at the Eastside Library was reported by a passing cab driver. By the time fire crews put the fire out, estimated damage was around $300,000.
The Eastside Friends of the Library and community mobilized quickly, and Library services temporarily moved to the Martin Luther King Wing. Arson was suspected and a $3,000 award was issued. Two weeks after the fire, 16-year-old Henry Vasquez was arrested. The Milpas Street resident was linked by graffiti found on the scene. Out on bail, the day before sentencing for the library fire, Henry was arrested as a suspect in an attempted robbery and battery at Pennywise Market. At the time of his arrest, Henry Vasquez had already been arrested 13 times with 3 convictions for burglary and battery. Henry served 8 years for the library arson and attempted robbery at Pennywise Market.
Providing more than just books, the Eastside Library and MLK Memorial Wing served as a community center for the Eastside neighborhood by creating a gathering place and programming space for the predominantly Latine, Hispanic, and Black communities. Programs included Lowrider car shows, poetry and writing workshops led by Sojourner Kincaid Rolle, Aztec and Caribbean dance classes, and the Black Styles/Black Spaces photography exhibit in 1985, which included works by Black Students and graduates from Brooks Institute.
The Eastside Library has made great strides to create a welcoming, bright environment for the community. Its most recent renovation in 2020 focused on flexible, open spaces to facilitate engaging with patrons one-to-one. Programming includes weekly early literacy classes; the bustling Stay and Play program; Bilingual Songs and Stories; one-to-one appointments for job and career support in SBPL Works! or support accessing social services through the Community Connections program; English conversation groups; computer and internet classes and tech coaching; a Spanish book club; a Teen Advisory Board and STEAM activities for school-age children; and educational and enrichment classes and events throughout the year for all ages.
Looking ahead to the next 50 years and ensuring the Eastside Library is poised to serve the growing and changing needs of the community, Santa Barbara Public Library Director, Jessica Cadiente, reflected, “Libraries today are more important than ever, serving not only as centers of learning and literacy but also as third places separate from work and home where people from all backgrounds can meet one another and build community. The Eastside Library staff, some of whom have worked at the location for more than a decade, are doing that work every day creating and holding space for those connections to flourish. We’re proud to continue that legacy for decades to come.”
To learn more about the Eastside Library’s history, watch a presentation featured in the Community Archives Day in partnership with UCSB Library Special Collections. Hear more stories of how the Eastside Library supports the community in this video produced for the Library’s 50th Birthday Bash.