The University of San Francisco has a long history of scholarship dating back to the 1800s, but its library, traditionally thought of as the heart of the school, was only built in 1950. The first site occupied by the school that would come to be known as USF was at Market and 5th Street, now occupied by the Westfield Shopping Center. During this early period, the school had no formal library, as the entire institute centered on one school room. The school stayed for five years, after which it moved because of the tax burden imposed on schools and churches.
The new school at Hayes St and Van Ness grew from humble beginnings to become one of the premier centers of learning on the West Coast, said library archivist Father Michael Kotlanger. Kotlanger explained that the old library consisted in large part of donated books, most of which were either science related or spiritual in nature. The books were not located in one central library, but rather in many individual collections organized by subject matter and scattered around the university. At that time, the books were strictly for use at the school, and could not be checked out by students.
As with the rest of the city, 1906 marked a turning point for USF. The massive quake and fire on April 18th, 1906 gutted the school and obliterated nearly everything in it, including all the books collected over the previous half century. The few records that survive from before 1906 were housed in separate locations downtown and in Los Gatos, said Kotlanger. After the tragic events of that day, the school moved to a location near the present day southern entrance to St. Mary's hospital at Hayes and Shrader, a few blocks from its present day location. School officials tried to build up the library's collection after the devastating loss of all its books, but at that time they had to rely on the generosity of donors. The law school opened in 1912, necessitating further book acquisitions, all of which were donated by jurists and legal scholars who had an interest in helping future legal minds.
In 1927, the school moved to its current address at Fulton and Parker. The burgeoning library collection was housed on the fourth floor of Campion Hall, the original university building that served as the entire university for many years. Finally, in 1950, the collection became large enough that university officials agreed a separate library would be both necessary and good for the school. The library is named after Father Richard Gleeson, who spent 46 years in service to the university. Kotlanger said Gleeson died the day it was announced that the library would bare his name.
Under the direction of Father William Monihan, the new library initially housed the relatively small collection from Campion Hall, and had administrative offices and classrooms on the upper floors. This condition was not to last, as Monihan aggressively sought out books for the new library, including many rare books now housed in the Donihue Rare Book Room. These include a fragment of the Gutenberg Bible dating from the 1450s, medieval illuminated manuscripts, the works of Sir Thomas Moore and a collection of letters from the English Catholic novelist and film-writer, Graham Greene. Kotlanger stumbled upon these letters when looking through files in the university's possession. The letters were appraised for $250,000.
As Monihan and his successors continued to build the library's collection, classroom and office space had to move to other locations on campus. In addition to its own collection, Kotlanger said the library once held the extensive personal collection of Adolph Sutro, who was mayor of San Francisco from 1895 until 1897. Space was leased in the library's basement by the Sutro estate until Gleeson library's own collection could no longer be housed solely in the upper floors. The lease was allowed to expire for a nominal rate, and Sutro's collection moved to its current location at San Francisco State University.
In 1997, the library opened the Geschke Learning Resource Center, named after Charles and Nancy Geschke, two university patrons and parents of a former student. The Geschke Center houses the circulation desk, reference stacks, and dozens of computers, both Apple and PC. The center also includes Thacher Gallery, an art exhibition room with rotating exhibits throughout the year. On the east wing of Geschke Center is the Monihan Atrium, a large study area named after the aforementioned Jesuit priest and library director.
The library's collection continues to grow at the rate of 13,000 volumes per year, according to its website, in an effort to maintain its status as a world class center for learning and scholarship. Located at the geographic heart of the university, Gleeson Library truly is at the heart of the school's dedication to learning and service.