The Library’s history goes back to the middle of the twentieth century as an extension of the mission of the Jewish Education Society (which would become the Bureau of Jewish Education in 1957 and Jewish LearningWorks in 2012). By 1954, the Jewish Community Bulletin (now J.) noted, “One of the most complete and remarkable libraries of Jewish literature of every description to be found in the West is that of the Jewish Education Society of San Francisco at 639 Fourteenth Ave., an unusual collection of more than 1800 books, 500 pamphlets, 400 periodicals and 50 different monthly or quarterly magazines,” and “the library is available to all interested people, Jews and non-Jews alike.” By the end of 1956, the Library was open to the public six days a week.
In 1963, Phyllis Blackman was hired as the library’s first dedicated librarian. As the Library’s collection continued to grow, the need for a larger space became apparent.
A stately building two doors away, on the corner of 14th Avenue and Balboa Street, had become Congregation Beth Israel’s Temple House in 1951, and later the campus of what was then Brandeis Day School. When the building became available for acquisition following Brandeis’s departure in 1973, William J. Lowenberg, the President of the BJE Board of Governors, grasped what he saw as “a one time opportunity to acquire the wonderful building we needed to make the Jewish Community Library a reality.”
Community fundraising and a redesign of the building followed. The new three-story library, which featured a children’s library, an audio-visual room, and an educator’s resource center, was dedicated on March 21, 1976, opening to the public on September 14. The Friends of the Jewish Community Library was formed in 1976 to help support collection development and fund lectures and presentations. Early events included one of the first lectures of the klezmer music revival, with UC Berkeley professor Martin Schwartz in March 1978.
The then-called Holocaust Library and Research Center of San Francisco (today’s JFCS Holocaust Center) opened on September 9, 1979 in the basement of the Library.
Following Blackman’s retirement in 1979, the Library was headed by Carole Bloomstein (with one of her assistants, Alan Lew, eventually leaving his job for the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical program). Nanette Stahl ran the library from 1981 to 1989, and was succeeded by Frederick Isaac. Under Isaac the Library entered the digital age, investing in a collection of music CDs from around the world. Featuring listening stations, the Library’s revamped music room became popular with singers, instrumentalists, and researchers.
Jonathan Schwartz, who had begun working at the Library in 1981, became director in 1995. Under his leadership the Library launched numerous outreach programs. Responding to the rise of book clubs, the Book Club in a Box program offered sets of books to book groups and trained book group facilitators. Roving Readers recruited and trained volunteers to read and bring books and audiobooks to the homebound. In 1999, the Library developed its first satellite branch, at the Albert L. Schultz JCC in Palo Alto, although the campus was soon shuttered.
During this time, the Library began its extensive video collection, first with VHS tapes and then with DVDs. Schwartz and colleague Howard Freedman began the Library’s popular film class, which lasted more than twenty years.
In 2003, excited by the prospect of a more spacious facility that would be accessible to the mobility-impaired, the Jewish Community Library accepted the invitation to move to the campus of the newly opened Jewish Community High School of the Bay. With generous financial support from the Keren Keshet Foundation, the Library was able to begin offering an extensive array of free literary and cultural programs, bringing tens of thousands of people through its doors over the years.
In 2005 the Library opened its Pushcart branch at the San Francisco JCC.
Following Schwartz’s retirement in 2009, Howard Freedman assumed the Library’s leadership, and program coordinator Rose Katz became reader services librarian. In 2010, the Palo Alto Pushcart opened at the newly built Oshman Family JCC. In 2012, the One Bay One Book program debuted. In 2013, the Haggadot in a Box program began.
In March 2020, with fortuitous timing just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Library commenced its eBook/audiobook service. With in-person programs on hiatus, the Library also began offering its public programs via Zoom, reaching more people throughout the Bay Area as a result.
Following a period during the height of the pandemic when circulation was limited to outside pickup, the Library reopened its doors for in-person browsing in June 2021. In-person programming also returned, in combination with online programs.
Rose Katz retired as reader services librarian in December 2021, and was succeeded by Leah Strauss, who had previously served as the Palo Alto Pushcart coordinator.
In July 2023, the Library separated from Jewish LearningWorks, with the San Francisco Study Center as its new fiscal sponsor.