By Karen Billing
2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the RSF Library and its hard-working Guild.
The first librarian, Fran Johnson, is 93 years old and still living in Rancho Santa Fe. She spent an afternoon reminiscing last week, looking at old articles about the library’s humble beginnings while the library’s current staff admired a sepia snapshot of Johnson in front of the stacks in 1964.
Johnson had been an English major at Wesleyan University and is a lifelong lover of books.
“You’re never bored and you’re never lonely if you have a good book,” said Johnson, who reads a newspaper every day and always has at least three books going.
During World War II, Johnson worked as a secretary for the head of the news bureau at Time Magazine in New York, recalling exciting times meeting foreign correspondents at the docks when they returned from assignments.
She and her husband, Sam, moved to California after the war and to Rancho Santa Fe in 1959. They had been living in La Jolla but one day Sam had been killing time after a business meeting and took a detour through the Ranch with friends. Sam and his friends fell so in love with the area that they all bought land on the spot. Sam designed the house Johnson still lives in today, and he did all the landscaping — he was known around town as an expert in California natives and, for many years, people simply called Fran “Mrs. Sam.”
Johnson got the job at the library having studied library science at San Diego State College. She had also catalogued the 350-volume library at Rancho Santa Fe School, a fact she did not remember until being reminded by current Guild membership and development manager Susan Appleby, reading from the scrapbook on her lap.
Before there was a library, Rancho Santa Fe’s reading interests were served by the county’s bookmobile that visited several afternoons a month. Johnson also recalled a small lending library at Bill and Emma’s Café, a soda fountain on Paseo Delicias.
“The old service was all right as far as it went but there were delays if Bill and Emma were busy in the kitchen or at the coffee counter and the choice of books wasn’t very large either,” Johnson said in a March 1964 article in the Evening Tribune.
The Rancho Santa Fe Association began conversations with the County Board of Supervisors to establish the community’s own library to serve “3,000 highly literate people” in Rancho Santa Fe. The supervisors agreed to put the library on the Ewing property, the old Post Office building on La Granada and Paseo Delicias, settling on rent of $150 a month.
According to an article written by longtime Guild member Ellie Johns, the rent was more than the county budget. Alice Ewing, with “her generous heart and civic spirit,” had lowered the rent from $300 but it was still too much for the county, leading to the formation of the Guild to supplement what the county could not provide.
Helen Weddell was named the first president of the Rancho Santa Fe Library Guild in 1963.
“She was quite a power,” recalled Johnson of Weddell.
It was Weddell who selected the name Library Guild over the more typical “Friends of the Library” name for such groups.
“She wanted it to be a ‘Guild’ because it sounded more important to her,” said Nancy Miller, who joined the Guild in 1974 and is back serving on the board after a previous 20-year stint.
Weddell was instrumental in gathering funds from charter members and the membership roll reached such proportions that they had to extend the dates for “Ranchoites” to sign up. There were over 450 charter members, their names inscribed on a commemorative scroll still on display at the library.
“The remarkable thing is how the membership happened, with just word of mouth,” Appleby said.
A committee of Rotarians, led by Rancho Santa Fe Fire Chief James Fox, went to work refurbishing the space for a one-room library, doing all the painting, tiling and replacing the plumbing in late 1963.
The formal opening for Rancho Santa Fe’s new little library was held on Feb. 29, 1964. The library’s dedication had been postponed in deference to Ewing, who had passed away. An 18th century sofa table was selected to hold a plaque and a perpetual fresh flower arrangement in memory of Ewing. The table is still in the library today, just inside the front door.
According to Rancho Santa Fe Times clippings, the library was a success from the day it opened. It had 3,000 fiction volumes to suit every taste “from dripping gore to rough and ready Western.” The other 4,000 volumes ranged from picture books for the very young to reference works for “the serious student.”
The paper reported that on the first day of the library’s opening 115 books went out and a total of 435 books went out the first week of the opening — 218 by children and 217 by adults.
Around 1965, the Guild became serious about looking for a site for a permanent library building. Roger Rowe, the superintendent of the school district, was very supportive of the Guild’s vision and in the Times Rowe was quoted as saying the vacant school land site would provide an “excellent opportunity for increased library usage by the school children.”
Rowe sold the library site to the Guild for $1.
In April 1968, the dedication for the new library on Avenida De Acacias was held with Weddell proudly holding the ribbon to be snipped. The library was built in a little over a year for $85,000, including $75,000 from contributions from Arthur Lindberg and Bill Evans, as well as 15 of their friends who remained anonymous.
“A little bit was added to the library at a time which makes it’s so charming,” Miller said. “It’s like a house. It’s the most comfortable library to be in.”
“People always ask if it used to be a home,” Appleby said. “That was the architect’s intent, to make it feel like someone’s home and not an institutional building.”
Johnson didn’t serve as the librarian for long because she left to work at the UC San Diego Library where she stayed for 18 years. She said she loved working at the RSF Library because she was able to choose her own hours — only working four hours on Fridays so she could play tennis with her friend from the RSF Library, Ginny Dewey. Dewey retired from the library just two years ago.
Fifty years since Weddell’s determination and drive, the Guild is still extremely active in funding the library for the community.
“The Guild raises funds to meet the gap between what the county provides and the services and resources that our community expects,” Appleby said.
The Guild still pays the salaries of the Children’s Library librarians, has purchased all of the books with gold spines on the shelves and while the county provides a portion of the periodicals, the Guild funds the rest — the latest magazines are always available.
The Guild still relies on donations and fundraising events, and its recently remodeled Book Cellar serves as an important source of revenue.
Appleby said the library plans to celebrate its 50th anniversary throughout the year with a variety of activities. A few improvement projects are also in the works, such as renovating the restrooms and parking lot in the back.
The library has come a long way from that twice-weekly bookmobile. As Miller said, residents wanted and demanded a “real library” for their town and through the support of the Guild the library has been kept alive.
“Rancho Santa Fe has always been distinguished by its strong sense of civic pride and responsibility,” wrote Ellie Johns. “The library is a prime example.”
The RSF Library is located at 17040 Avenida de Acacias Rancho Santa Fe, CA 92067; (858) 756-2512.