April 20, 2018

Remembering Kevin Starr, CA State Librarian

Starr,_Kevin_(IMLS)California state librarian emeritus Kevin Starr was a larger-than-life character, who filled a room with his presence and distinctively booming voice. He was also a brilliant raconteur and highly respected expert on California history. When he died of a heart attack on January 14 in his hometown of San Francisco at the age of 76, librarians across the state not only mourned the loss of an important library spokesperson, many also paid tribute to a mentor who was both a scholar and a gentleman.

Born in 1940, Kevin Starr was a fourth-generation San Franciscan of Irish descent. He spent part of his childhood in an orphanage and was on his own by age 14. He got his undergraduate degree in 1962 from the University of San Francisco and his doctorate from Harvard seven years later. His dissertation eventually led to the publication of Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915 (Oxford Univ. Press), the first in his multi-volume series chronicling the social and cultural history of California. As current state librarian, Greg Lucas, recently noted, “No other historian has been able to capture California’s exceptionalism, its vitality, and its promise in such detail and yet invest it with the immediacy and excitement of a page-turner novel.”

Starr, who once told an audience at the South Pasadena Public Library that he “pieced jobs together” early on in his career, worked as executive aide and speechwriter to San Francisco mayor Joseph Alioto in 1973, only to be appointed by the mayor as city librarian soon after. Starr received a master’s degree in library science from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1974. He remained at San Francisco Public Library until 1976 and then left to teach at a number of institutions, including the University of Southern California. In 1994, he was appointed California state librarian.

For ten years Starr served at the pleasure of one Democratic and two Republican governors. Within four years of being appointed, he increased the state library’s budget by 65 percent and initiated far-reaching programs, including Proposition 14, a bond measure that authorized $350 million for library construction. In 2001, the state legislature passed Assembly Bill 1723, known as the Kevin Starr Access to Information Act, enabling visually impaired people to call a toll-free number to have volunteers read the news to them. He also signed the agreement that created the African American Museum and Library in Oakland and was instrumental in creating the California Center for the Book.

Starr’s connection to the statewide library profession was much more personal, however. Proclaiming, when he was sworn in, that he wanted to be “a visible State Librarian…spreading the message of libraries in general, and the State Library in particular,” Starr was a frequent speaker at local library functions, charming every audience with a quick overview of their town’s history. He was also a major presence at California Library Association conferences, where he would fondly roast his staff every year at the state library breakfast and frequently burst into spontaneous song. Always dressed in a bowtie and Brooks Brothers suit, he was immediately recognizable and welcomed.

Kevin Starr received many honors during his lifetime. When he retired as state librarian in 2004, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger named him state librarian emeritus. He received the National Humanities Award in 2006, and was inducted into the California Library Hall of Fame in 2013. He will best be remembered as someone who loved California and was a passionate advocate for libraries. As he said many times, there was only one place he would ever consider serving as state librarian: his beloved home state of California.



  1. A. Mary Madalyn says:

    Sincere condolences to Mr. Starr’s family, friends, and colleagues. From this brief article, he seemed to be ahead of his time, with librarianship always his focus– “a visible State Librarian…spreading the message of libraries in general, and the State Library in particular.”

    How good it is to know that Mr. Starr, State Librarian in California, actually had a library degree. Not so in Illinois, where the title of “State Librarian” is lumped together (an afterthought?) with that of “Secretary of State.” No masters in library science required. An embarrassment for Illinoisans, which I hope will be corrected before I leave this earth.