History of the Library

History of the Library

Shields Library Main Reading Room, 1955 (University Archives/Special Collections)

The library has been an integral part of the UC Davis academic experience since the university, then known as the University Farm, was founded in 1908. The library initially began as one room and was located within the university’s Creamery building, which was one of only four buildings on the 779-acre campus.

A strong beginning

The university’s first University Librarian, Margaret Mayberry, was hired in 1913, but it wasn’t until Nelle U. Branch became head librarian in 1924 that the library experienced real growth. During the mid-to-late 1920s, the library collection grew to nearly 2,000 volumes, the periodicals room was opened, and a reserve book system was established along with a formal arrangement for ordering books. In 1926 the library cataloging changed from the Dewey Decimal system to the Library of Congress call numbers, which eventually became the standard for academic research libraries throughout the nation.

Students save library

By the 1930s, the library had grown to occupy five rooms in the Classroom Building. In 1938, however, the Classroom Building was condemned. In order to save the collection, UC Davis students formed a human chain to move the collection to temporary quarters in the recreation building behind West Hall.

Library becomes training facility in WWII

In 1940 the new library and administration building, which is the present day north wing of the Peter J. Shields Library, was completed. Soon after it opened, however, World War II began and the entire UC Davis campus, including the library, became a training facility for the Army Signal Corps. The signal corps occupied the campus from 1942 through most of World War II, using the Shields Main Reading Room as a place for specialized instruction in radio and wire operation and repair.

UC Davis’ first graduation at library

In the 1940s, an important milestone in the university’s history occurred at the main library. The university’s first commencement ceremony for a four-year degree was held in 1948 in the Sunken Garden, which is now the Peter J. Shields Library Courtyard.

Library branches out

In the 1950s, under the leadership of UC Davis Librarian J. Richard Blanchard, the Agricultural Economics Library was established, the Veterinary Medicine Library was made a branch of the library system, services were expanded to include microforms, a course in bibliographic research was created, and facilities were improved including the addition of air conditioning and new stacks. During this time, the library also acquired F. Hal Higgins Library of Agricultural Technology and C.K. Ogden Library.

Growth in the 60s

The library saw tremendous growth during the 1960s. Between 1961 and 1967 the collection more than doubled to 500,000 books. The footprint of the library also expanded significantly with the addition of two new wings — south and east — and the Special Collections department was created. In 1966, with the founding of the UC Davis School of Medicine, the Veterinary Medicine Library was converted into the Health Sciences Library and construction for a new health sciences library began. All of these accomplishments and more led to the UC Davis Library becoming a member of the Association of Research Libraries in 1969.

Oral historian Avrom I. Dickman, Chancellor Emeritus Emil M. Mrak, and University Librarian J. Richard Blanchard examine Mrak’s oral history, Emil Mrak: A journey through three decades, which became the library’s one millionth book in 1974. (University Archives/Special Collections)

Millions of books and two new libraries

The library collection continued to grow in the 1970s. In 1974 the library acquired it’s 1 millionth book, Emil Mrak: A journey through three decades, an oral history of Emil Mrak, who served as UC Davis’ chancellor from 1959-1969. Just four years later, the library collection grew to 1.5 million volumes.

Another special milestone during the 1970s was the naming of the main library after Judge Peter J. Shields. The 1970s also saw the opening of two new libraries: the Physical Sciences Library in 1971 and the new Health Sciences Library in 1977.

The 1980s were an era of growing recognition and prestige for the UC Davis Library. In 1980 the university became a member of the Research Libraries Group,  the MELVYL online catalog was made available for public use in 1983, and the Health Sciences Library was named for Loren D. Carlson in 1984. Additionally, thanks to an endowment from Margaret B. Harrison, the Margaret B. Harrison Western Research Center and Margaret B. Harrison Preservation Department were created. By the end of the decade, the library’s collection totaled 2 million books and construction on a new west wing of Shields Library was underway.

The library of the 21st century

At the dawning of the new millennium, the library introduced wireless access to the library’s collection and launched a Library Instruction Lab for hands-on teaching of electronic catalogues and databases. This effort gained tremendous momentum with the hiring of current University Librarian, MacKenzie Smith, in 2012. Under Smith’s leadership, the library created new programs in online strategy, scholarly communications, digital scholarship, data management, institutional digital asset management, communications and assessment. Smith also helped launch the university’s Data Science Initiative and was involved with the creation of a new data science academic degree programs at UC Davis.

Additionally, the UC Davis Library has become more involved with nationwide, large-scale, digital library initiatives including the Google Books initiative. At the same time, library staff are looking at remodeling and reconfiguring much of the physical space in Shields Library to better accommodate the modern academic and research environment at UC Davis.

The library currently has a collection of 10 million items, more than 1.66 million visitors annually — 96 percent of whom are students — and is ranked among the top 100 academic research libraries in North America.