The first library in California was at a mission.
Most of the Franciscan missionaries who came to California were well-educated men. They had been students at universities in Spain. Often they had gone on to become university professors themselves before deciding to be missionaries to the New World.
Books were important to the padres. They were a familiar part of home and their roots, comforting to them in the strangeness of a new land. The padres used the books in the mission libraries for information and for mental stimulation.
Each of the California missions had a library or collection of books of some sort. Sometimes the books were kept in the reception room of the guests quarters, or in the padre’s office. We know that even the smallest mission had a library, for the records reveal that in December 1834, the library at Mission San Rafael was sold for $108.
Perhaps the largest mission library was at Mission San Carlos Borromeo. For many years, this mission served as the home of the president of the missions. As such, it had all of the books owned by Father Junípero Serra. At the time of Serra’s death, it is estimated that the library here had between 1,500 and 2,500 books in it. The Mission San Carlos Borromeo library has been recreated and it can now be visited and viewed.
Most of the books in mission libraries were, of course, much older than the missions themselves. They were printed in Spain in the early 18th century and brought to the Americas by the Franciscan missionaries. Many of them had heavy leather bindings that have lasted through the decades.
As would be supposed, many of the mission library books were on religious topics -- theology, biblical studies, lives of the saints. The padres used these books in preparing their sermons and teaching the Indians. These religious books were in Latin as well as in Spanish.
There were also practical books on agriculture, medicine, and architecture. It was from one of the books of architecture that Padre Antonio Ripoll at Mission Santa Bárbara copied the design of the church there. This book was entitled The Six Books of Architecture, written in 27 BC by the Roman architect Vitruvius Polion. The book had been published and republished in Europe through the centuries. A Spanish translation published in Mexico was the one that Padre Ripoll used at Mission Santa Bárbara. Decorative designs used in the mission churches were copies from other books in the libraries.
The mission libraries also contained books of biography and fiction, which the padres read for pleasure and relaxation. A copy of Don Quixote by the Spanish novelist Cervantes was in one of the mission libraries.
Each time a new padre came to a California mission, there was hope that he would bring books. In a report from Mission San Diego to Father Serra (then living at Mission San Carlos Borromeo), the padres said that the library there had been enriched by the addition of more books.
As the years passed, the Franciscans at the California missions produced books themselves. First there were the record books. Each mission kept detailed accounts of the activities of the mission. The names of all the Indian converts were entered in a register, as were births, marriages, and deaths. Listings were kept of the livestock and crop production at each mission. List of supplies were detailed.
When Father Serra made the first trip to San Diego in 1769, he brought a large leather-bound book with blank pages. On the first page he inscribed the name of the mission and the date of its founding. Similar books were prepared for each mission when it was founded. Some of these original mission record books still exist, with their first pages written by Father Serra or Father Lasuén as president of the missions.
The Franciscans also kept detailed personal diaries of their daily activities. Padre Juan Crespi kept a diary of the journey from Mexico to California in 1769. That diary tells modern historians most of what we know about the Sacred Expedition.
Before the establishment of the Spanish missions, the languages of the California Indians had not been written down. The Indians passed on their history to their children orally, through stories and songs. There were no books to help the Franciscan padres learn the Indian languages. Some padres had difficulty in learning the Indian languages. Others became skilled in many local dialects.
Several mission padres produced books in the languages of California Indian groups. These could be considered the first books “published” in California. Buenaventura Sitjar worked for 37 years at Mission San Antonio de Padua. During that time he produced a 400-page grammar and vocabulary of the Mutsun Indian language.
At Mission San Juan Bautista, Padre Arroyo de la Cuesta learned more than a dozen Indian languages. He published a lengthy study of the Mutsumi language, for which he received international recognition in 1860. He also compiled a summary of Indian phrases.
The library at Mission San Juan Bautista includes musical manuscripts written in hand on parchment by Padre Estévan Tápis. He colored the notes in red, yellow, black and blue to help the Indian choir learn the parts of the harmony.
These early books produced in California were handwritten. They were bound in vellum, which is a fine leather made from calfskin. The mission tannery produced the bindings for these books.
By the 1820s and 1830s many settlers had come to California from Mexico. Those who were interested in books and reading made friends with the padres at the missions. The padres were always happy to discuss books and the ideas in them. For a brief time during this period, the missions were the intellectual centers of the community.
Today, several of the restored missions contain libraries housing some of the books from the original mission libraries, as well as many of the records, letters, and diaries of the padres. The largest collections are at Missions San Carlos Borromeo, San Fernando Rey, San Antonio de Padua, San Gabriel, and Santa Bárbara.
In the archives at Mission Santa Bárbara is the journal written by Father Serra. The library at Mission San Gabriel has a book that was produced in 1489.
Continuing the tradition of learning that a library represents, several of the missions became the site of colleges. The first college in California was the College of Our Lady of Refuge, founded on the grounds of Mission Santa Inés in 1843. In 1851 the authority for the church at Mission Santa Clara was transferred to the Jesuits, who founded a college there that became Santa Clara University. Mission Santa Bárbara was a school for the training of Franciscan priests from 1896 to 1968.