by Joseph A. Carotenuti July 2009

Literacy came to California with the pioneers. The earliest Spanish padres were university trained and the ability to read and write was a requirement for military promotion. The first library – the remnants of the Mission books – is housed today at Mission San Carlos Borromeo (Carmel) while nearby Monterey is credited as the first public (subscription) library. One of the earliest acts of the new State of California legislature in 1850 was the establishment of a State Library and Office of Librarian. This, however, was for official papers and officials’ use only.

Schools were the earliest targets to promote literacy and the state required County Superintendents to use a certain portion of educational allotments to purchase books for students. Attention was then directed toward educators as each Superintendent of Schools maintained a Teachers’ Library. Eventually, both school and teacher collections were part of a County library system. Only the general public was ignored in the State’s plan.

Private libraries were prized and books could be borrowed from schools for a fee, but there was no statewide attempt to spread literacy unless a community could afford to fund their own system. Beginning as a subscription based collection, San Luis Obispo inaugurated the first library in the county (1894) becoming a tax supported municipal responsibility three years later. Help came from the State five years later.

In 1899, James L. Gillis was appointed Librarian for a State Library dedicated solely for governmental use. It was not long before “traveling libraries” were available to communities…for free at what became known as “deposit stations”. Usually fifty books were sent to ten such stops in the County. Next, legislation allowed the Boards of Supervisors to use tax revenue to create county systems. With a pronounced aversion to taxes, this county was one of the last to take advantage of the law.

The History of the San Luis Obispo County Library by this writer provides a more detailed study of the topic. Nonetheless, as was so typical, the implementation of just one small oasis of community literacy was a demanding task dependant on the hard work, dedication, and good will of many.


On July 1, 1919, the San Luis Obispo County’s library system officially began with Miss Margaret Dold as Librarian. Within one year of its founding, with the cooperation of the County Superintendent of Schools and approval of the Board of Supervisors, a County branch was located in 33 schools and communities. Rapidly, nearly one hundred branches were noted by 1925 with a Santa Margarita community facility a late establishment.

This certainly was not the result of lack of local interest in literacy. In December 1919, a N. P. Nelson wrote the County Superintendent of Schools believing “we may as well have a branch” of the library in the community. He even offered a librarian…Mrs. Swayse to care for the books in her home “at least until school starts.” All he asked was that there be sent “a lot of books.” If that were not possible, he offered to bring his car to San Luis Obispo to take delivery. Schools had long since received a State allocation for a library but any collection was undoubtedly small. Becoming a County station…in a school and/or community…offered increased variety at the rural sites. Nelson’s letter was well received as a school branch was inaugurated the following April.

The Santa Margarita community library was established on November 1, 1924. This seems a late date considering the 79 school branches and 18 community locations established within the system’s first five years. Possibly Dold and her successor Flo A. Gantz (1921-1928) simply were too involved with providing for the dozens of new branches. Being between the larger communities of Atascadero and San Luis Obispo – each with libraries – the thought may have been that the smaller population still had some…albeit less convenient…access to books. Indeed, the small collection provided for Garden Farms (discussed below) was even closer. Additionally, the local school library allowed for non-student residents to pay an “admission fee” of one dollar plus fifty cents a month and borrow the school’s books. Given the generally small collection, the residents had limited choices.

There is some suggestion of a location in surviving records before the 1924 date as Mrs. Mabelle Johnson looked after some books in a “cupboard in the lobby of the post office.” With no home delivery for mail, the post office library was a popular spot to visit. However, this “library” may have been a community effort to provide some reading materials to residents.

In any event, in a letter dated the first day of November 1924 to the Board of Supervisors, Gantz informed the Board she was recommending Mrs. LuLu Murphy as the “custodian” for a collection with a compensation of $5 per month. Murphy had written earlier requesting a branch for the small community: “I would like very much to take charge of them. I live next door north of the post office on the highway and can easly (sic) spare a front room for that purpose.” Thus, Santa Margarita’s “branch” was established as had most of the other rural stations with a local lady donating her home (and virtually her time as custodian) to bring books to the small community.

When Murphy moved away by the end of the year, Mary L. Cogan, then postmaster, informed the County Librarian she had assumed responsibility for the books. It must have indeed been a small collection as Cogan informed Gantz: “Mr. Cogan has stained bookcase and we also put a curtain on it.” There was a positive response from the residents but within a year Cogan questioned why she was not receiving any new books. “Our best readers,” she lamented, “never look at the library now because they have read every thing it contains that appeals to them.”

A note of explanation: books were circulated between branches with both local custodians and central staff members in San Luis Obispo delivering and exchanging books. Cogan expected some deliveries as her husband fetched any new books. “I shouldn’t think this should be expected at $5 per month.” He was always in a hurry, she explained, and didn’t have time to obtain a fresh supply. This and undoubtedly other issues were resolved and Mary Cogan (with Mr. Cogan as a helper) remained at her post for about 35 years.

In October 1958, the library remained in a cabinet in the local post office. There had been six county librarians when the newly appointed Lois King Crumb requested space in the soon to be vacated justice court building to replace the post office location. In January 1959, Frances Van Arlsdalen began her 16 years of service with the collection housed in its new location at the corner of Murphy and I Streets and opened 16 hours a week. (photo seen here, this location is now the Used Book Store)

A more detailed insight into both the library and community is provided in a collection of monthly reports housed in the Library Archives. Beginning in December 1958, the reports over the next 14 years (mostly by Van Arlsdalen) are more than statistical accounts of patronage but also reflections on the emerging community. The library not only served the community but also was a vital part in often mundane but also fascinating accounts of life in the area.

In 1975, Phyllis Lerno began an eight-year stint at the helm of the small branch in the building now used as the Friends of the Library Bookstore. One resident remembers Phyllis and resident Bud Sutherland meeting for friendly conversation and a smoke in the library. Since Bud enjoyed cigars, a good read and smoke aroma often went home with the patrons.

Lerno served during the periodic “budget constraints” endemic to government. In 1980, Santa Margarita along with five other small branches was recommended for closure. The citizenry was understandably upset, the anxiety unfortunate, but the doors remained open…even if for fewer hours.

Marjorie Mackey was long a well-known community activist before beginning her five years of service in Santa Margarita (1983-1988). She has been the only library employee who was also a city council member for 11 years with two terms as mayor in 1983 and again in 1986 in Atascadero.

At her retirement reception, she was credited with checking out 33,000 books and answering more than 3,000 reference questions. All accomplished during a 10-hour weekly assignment.

Arriving in Santa Margarita in 1976, Barbara Elsea lived across the street from the library but began her years of service in 1977 by commuting to San Luis Obispo. Her commute was considerably shorter when in 1989 she began six years of new duties as branch manager in her hometown. Today, she continues to commute to serve in Administration Services.
Recalls Elsea of her new job:

“Since the building used to be a house, the kitchen cabinets and sink were still in place. The rustic bathroom was exactly that…the claw foot-tub in place, the medicine cabinet had green glass knobs, the room had two doors. It definitely had character!” While most others might put in a work request, Barbara addressed the issue: “The first thing I did, I pulled out the kitchen cabinets and sink….then I requested the tub be pulled out.” By covering over an unneeded door and several windows, new wall space was created. “Antique oak shelving came from out in storage.” Of course, fresh paint came before new shelves. Next task was the back room used for storage. Barbara emptied, painted and shelved the small space which was transformed into a non-fiction area for children and adults.

It was during this time that a wrought iron library sign originally constructed for the Morro Bay branch in mid-1954 was discovered and given a new purpose. The work of blacksmith N. Blair Zitko, originally the sign hung from a handcrafted redwood beam constructed by Peter Linder. There was also a wrought iron addition “ART” to announce the library also had exhibits inside. It was given new exposure by hanging from the front porch of the Constable’s House. Today it can be seen gracing the current library building.

At the end of her six years, computers had been installed and thus ended the need for patrons to write their name to withdraw a book. It was a good practice remembers Elsea as children “couldn’t have their very own card until they were able to write their name.”


The building of 1959 required some upgrades but remained at 400 square feet which is too small by any estimation. A boost for our library was the inauguration of the Friends of the Santa Margarita Library in 1995. It was through the Friends efforts and 5th District Supervisor, David Blakely that a larger building was located and moved behind the old library in 1996. This building is our current Library. 

Today, the population has not dramatically changed from when the library began 95 years ago. The library still maintains a brisk business during its weekly 26-hour schedule. For 2018, nearly 27,000 (26,458) items were lent to 8,604 visitors.


1924: Mrs. Lulu Murphy
1924 - 1958: Mary L. Cogan
1959 - 1975: Frances Van Arlsdalen
1975 - 1983: Phyllis M. Lerno
1983 - 1988: Marjorie R. Mackey
1988 - 1994: Barbara Elsea
1995 - 2013: Debra Jurey

2013 - 2018: Debra Leal 

2019 - Present: Shawnita Onwuma


Even before a small satellite library location was established in Santa Margarita in 1924, County Librarian Flo Gantz informed the Board of Supervisors of her decision to establish “as an experiment” a collection in nearby Garden Farms.

On May 7, 1923, Lena B. Welscher volunteered to house the collection in her fruit stand along the highway. Within three months, Gantz concluded the experiment was a success and requested a salary of $3 a month for the new “custodian.” In September, a new location was found in Santa Margarita with Welsher’s sister, Clara Rose Gates, earning $7 a month to care for the growing collection. Gates remained in charge until 1953. Her granddaughter, Virginia Gates Robinson, continued a family tradition as the collection’s guardian housed in her living room until the branch closed five years later.


All history is an approximation…hopefully, accurate…but nonetheless, an approximation and subject to improvement. Thus, gathering information about the past is a careful search for facts, a piecing together of what bits have survived to the present and a weaving of all into what becomes – at best – a reflection of the reality. There is always more to tell, memories to share and savor, and as yet undiscovered treasures of records that change what has been written. With diligence…and a bit of luck…enough survives in both the documents and the retelling of history to make it worth the time to read and remember – and worthy of those who created the original.