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History of The Bancroft Library

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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’s Vision

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.

web Materials

Online Exhibition: Building Bancroft: The Evolution of a Library

California History Lecture: A Library for California

by J.S. Holliday
Broadcast on KQED Radio (FM 88.5) on August 28, 2003

This lecture traces the history of The Bancroft Library from its origins with Hubert Howe Bancroft to the present. In 1859 Hubert Howe Bancroft began collecting books, journals, maps, and documents that recorded the history of California and the western states and territories. By 1905, when he sold his library to the University of California, Bancroft's astonishing collection-including government and church archives-encompassed the region from Alaska to Panama. During the almost one hundred years since that fortuitous purchase, The Bancroft Library has expanded in size and focus to become not only the foremost resource for the study of California and Western American history, but as well one of the greatest research libraries in the world-thanks to the imaginative, often risk-taking leadership of its four directors. Yes, only four in nearly one hundred years, 1905-2005: Herbert E. Bolton, George P. Hammond, James D. Hart, and the present director, Charles B. Faulhaber.

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