Written by on February 27, 2019

Dexter: Cal Poly’s First Library

In anticipation of Kennedy Library’s renovation, let’s take a walk down memory lane and reminisce about Cal Poly’s first library building, the Walter F. Dexter Memorial Library.

Students move books into the new Dexter library building, 1949. University Archives Photograph Collection, ua-pho_00000537.

Cal Poly had a library space since the campus opened in 1903. The one-room library was located in buildings around campus, including the first administration building and classroom buildings, but there was never an official library building. As the campus grew, the administration recognized the need for a larger library space, designed intentionally as a library building. Plans for the first library building began in 1941 but were halted until 1947 due to the war. In 1947, the Office of the California State Architect submitted construction plans of the new library and classroom building, and after approval, construction began. The new library was named after the late Dr. Walter Friar Dexter, who had served as the state superintendent of public instruction for eight years.

Portrait of Dr. Walter Friar Dexter. University Archives Photograph Collection, ua-pho_00002558.

In 1948, while the building was under construction, Mrs. Walter F. Dexter, the members of the State Board of Education, and President Julian McPhee laid the cornerstone of the building signifying not only the dedication to Dr. Dexter but also the “splendid advancement in the development” of Cal Poly.

Dexter Library exterior, circa 1950. University Archives Photograph Collection, ua-pho_00000538.

After two anticipation-filled years, Dexter Library was officially opened September 12, 1949. The building that greeted the students was a two-story concrete building of Spanish-Moorish architecture.

The main floor contained two reading rooms designed to fit 500 students (enrollment in 1949 was 2,900 students), a large card catalog system, a lounge with a fireplace, a periodical and reserve room containing 500 different magazines, librarian and cataloging offices, and seminar and conference rooms.

A scrapbook in the University Archives documents the development and construction of Dexter Library. Flip through the scrapbook here: https://digital.lib.calpoly.edu/rekl-91877.

Dexter Library Map, 1956. The ROTC program was housed in Dexter in 1956, and continues to reside in the building today. This map was printed in the 1956 Mustang Handbook, introducing students to campus resources. Public Affairs Collection, ua-sel_00000387.

Dexter Library Card Catalog, 1954, University Archives Photograph Collection, ua-pho_00000550.

On the lower floor, the library offered rooms for projection of motion pictures, offices for librarians, film dark rooms, seminar rooms, storage rooms, and two small listening rooms equipped with modern record machines. The steel book stacks accommodated 85,000 volumes of works.

Dexter Library stacks, 1977. University Archives Photograph Collection, ua-pho_00000544.

In 1962, due to the growing student population, construction began on the Dexter Memorial Library Annex. Costing $1.2 million, the reader capacity of the library went from accommodating 520 students to 1,650 students. It enlarged the floor space by 66,000 square feet.

Dexter Library served the Cal Poly population until 1980, when it could no longer support the growing student body. It was replaced by the Robert E. Kennedy Library. Though the library moved, Dexter is still an active site on campus. Now, the Art Department, the ROTC program, the University Art Gallery, and Subway restaurant inhabit the spaces.

Front facade and plaza of Kennedy Library. University Archives Photograph Collection, ua-pho_00003037.

Learn more about the library’s renovation: https://renovation.lib.calpoly.edu/

Learn more about the history of Cal Poly’s libraries: http://lib.calpoly.edu/news/2017/04/from-the-university-archives-a-short-history-of-cal-polys-libraries/

See more images of Dexter library here: https://digital.lib.calpoly.edu/islandora/search/Dexter?type=dismax


Eley, Don. “New Library Building Construction to Start Soon.” El Mustang (San Luis Obispo, CA), Oct. 17, 1947.

“17,000 Volumes Ready As New Library Opens.” El Mustang (San Luis Obispo, CA), Sep. 16, 1949.

“Circle K Directs College Fund Drive For John F. Kennedy Library.” El Mustang (San Luis Obispo, CA), May 5, 1964.

Conlon, Tom. “Shelves delay library opening.” El Mustang (San Luis Obispo, CA), Oct. 8, 1980.

“Another Building Accepted; College Continues to Grow: Library Annex Passes Final Will Triple Reader Capacity.” El Mustang (San Luis Obispo, CA), Oct. 5, 1962.

Read more on cal poly history, special collections and archives, and university archives.

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