History of The Bancroft Library
The Bancroft Library officially dates from 1905, when the University of California acquired Hubert Howe Bancroft's personal library.
Bancroft himself, however, dated of beginning of the collection to 1859. That is when he assembled all the books about California and the West that he had at his San Francisco bookstore in order to make a reference shelf to use in preparing to publish the 1860 Hand-Book Almanac for the Pacific States. Once bitten by the collecting bug, the native of Ohio began actively acquiring works on the history of his adopted state. Over time his interests came to encompass the entire region from the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific, and from Panama to Alaska.
Bancroft saw his collection as a historical resource awaiting an author. Unable to find scholars willing to tackle his massive accumulation of books and manuscripts, Bancroft elected to draft this history himself, with the support of a staff of interviewers, transcribers, and writers.
The final opus, The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft (or Bancroft’s Works) encompassed thirty-nine volumes, covering The Native Races; Central America; Mexico; The North Mexican States and Texas; Arizona and New Mexico; California; The Northwest Coast; Washington, Idaho, and Montana; British Columbia; and Alaska.
Had Bancroft been only a collector and a writer, his contribution to history would have been immense. Because so many of the leading figures in California's history were still alive, Bancroft had the opportunity to acquire original sources, such as official California documents from the Mexican period provided by General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, California mission documents, and the diary of Donner Party member Patrick Breen. From Alphonse Pinart he gathered unique material on Russian America and indigenous people throughout California and the West. Where Bancroft could not secure original documents, he had relevant portions of them transcribed. This was the case with the Archives of Spanish and Mexican California, which were then in the hands of the United States Surveyor General.
When there was no existing documentation, he created it by seeking out and interviewing historical figures. The "Bancroft Dictations" are among the most valuable sources in the collection. Bancroft’s efforts laid the foundation for The Bancroft Library’s Oral History Center.
Finding a Home for the Collection
H.H. Bancroft's history project was completed in 1894. Realizing the value of his collection for posterity, he sought a permanent home for it. He eventually sold it to the University of California for a fraction of its value, with the provision that it be maintained as a separate library. He also stipulated that the University add to the core collection over time.
First housed in the attic of California Hall, and then in Doe Library, The Bancroft Library moved to its present location in the Doe Library Annex in 1950. At that time, the original scope of the library was enlarged to include a number of other unique and special collections, including the Rare Books Collection. The Bancroft Library underwent a major renovation between 2003 and 2008; it reopened in its beautifully restored space in January 2009.
The Bancroft Library now includes the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, the History of Science and Technology Collection, Mark Twain Papers & Project, the Oral History Center, the Pictorial Collection, the University of California Archives, and many other distinctive collections in addition to the original core collections of Western and Latin Americana from H.H. Bancroft’s library. It has become one of the largest—and busiest—special collections libraries in the United States.
California History Lecture: