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Brief History

Online Exhibition: Building Bancroft: The Evolution of a Library
California History Lecture: A Library for California

Although The Bancroft Library officially dates from 1905, when the University of California acquired Hubert Howe Bancroft's personal library, it was actually born some forty-two years earlier, when Bancroft, assisting the editor of a projected guide book to the western states, discovered seventy-five volumes pertaining to California and the West on the shelves of his own San Francisco bookstore. Suddenly bitten by the collecting bug, the native of Ohio began accumulating works on the history of his adopted state, but over time the scope of his interests came to encompass the entire Trans-Mississippi West, extending from Alaska to Central America.

Ultimately, Bancroft saw his collection as history awaiting an author. Unable to find scholars willing to tackle his massive accumulation of books and manuscripts, Bancroft elected to write it himself, with the aid of a staff of interviewers, transcribers, and writers. The final work 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, Alaska, and the remainder of the American west.

Had Bancroft been only a collector and a writer, his contribution to history would have been immense. But because so many of the leading figures in California's history were still alive, Bancroft had the opportunity to accumulate original documents, such as those of General Mariano Guadelupe Vallejo, and the estate of Sir James Douglas, once governor of British Columbia. If he could not secure original documents, he had transcriptions made of relevant portions, as in the case of the Archives of Spanish and Mexican California then in the hands of the U.S. Surveyor General. And when there were no documents at all, he created them by seeking out and interviewing historical figures; these "Bancroft Dictations" are among the most valuable documents in the collection.

Bancroft's history project was completed in 1894. Realizing the value to posterity of his collection, he sought a permanent home for it, eventually selling it for a fraction of its value to the University of California, with the provision that it be maintained as a separate library, and that the core collection be added to over time.

First housed in the attic of California Hall, and then in the Doe Library, The Bancroft Library moved into its present quarters in 1973. At the same time, the original scope of the library was enlarged to include a number of other "special collections," including the former Rare Books Collection. The Bancroft Library now includes the Mark Twain Papers and Project, the Regional Oral History Office, the University of California Archives, the History of Science and Technology Program, the Pictorial Collection, and the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life. It has become one of the largest -- and busiest -- special collections in the United States.


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