The North Baker Research library is a “special collections library,” can you explain what that means?
A special collections library is different from a lending library which would cover a vast range of topics. Ours is a research library where people come to do more in-depth research on collections that we have in our archives. Our focus is only California, which is bigger than a lot of places but smaller in scale than what many other libraries may cover. We house diverse collections that people can view and study to help them draw their own perspectives of the history of California.
What’s the difference between CHS’s library and a regular public library?
At a public library you generally don’t have rare materials and it’s usually a lending library, meaning they let you take the books home with you. We don’t loan out our materials because they are rare and unique. We are similar to some universities which will have a library for student use but also have special collections that focus on one area, for example the labor archives at SF State.
What does the public have access to through the North Baker Research Library?
We have more than half a million photographs as well as 35,000 books and 4,000 manuscript collections, plus maps, ephemera, posters, broadsides, periodicals, newspapers, and the Kemble Collection on Western Printing and Publishing. The bulk of our collections date from the 1860’s through the 1970’s, but we do have some very early manuscript material from when California was still part of Mexico. The public has access to everything in our vaults if they come visit during the library’s open hours. Anyone can visit the library and request to see a collection, which we will then take out of the vault for you to explore. People can also access our collection through the digital library, where we are rapidly digitizing material, and we have an online catalog which lets you see what we have and what you might want to look at when you come for an in person visit.
Can you talk a little more about the work you and the rest of the library and collections staff are doing to make our collections accessible to people who might not be able to physically visit our space?
We realize that it’s getting harder to get to San Francisco and difficult to stay here a long time, especially if you are a researcher exploring a specific topic. We want to, and are in the process of, digitizing as much of our collection as possible. The library is an intermediary between someone wanting to find information and the vaults below us where the information might be and so we want to make accessing those amazing resources as easy as possible. We do have to uphold a very deliberate process though, because the moment that we digitize something it becomes its own object that needs to be preserved and cataloged. There are also sometimes copyright and third-party rights that need to be addressed before a digital image is displayed online. Also some things you just can’t digitize, they’re too fragile, they’re oversized, or they might be thousands of pages long. So what we try to do is prioritize our digitization needs. Things that are older or more fragile need to be digitized sooner rather than later so they are handled and worn less. One example of a collection we recently digitized is the Peoples Temple collection. In this instance we felt it was necessary to digitize the photographs in the collection first, allowing people access to them immediately for research and learning purposes. That became a priority over the manuscripts materials, of which there are over one hundred boxes. The entire Peoples Temple collection is, however, open to researchers who visit our library.
Who comes to the library?
We get researchers from all over the world, we get people who are interested in their family genealogy, we get people from SF and the Bay Area who are interested in their neighborhood or their building history. We also get a lot of people from out of state or country who have a research topic in mind. We recently had a researcher from South Africa and spend a few days in our library looking over plans, drawings, and manuscripts related to water projects by a Californian who worked for a period of time in South Africa. There was also a professor from New Zealand who flew here to go through records we hold by the American Civil Liberties Union-Northern California. We also see a number of students, predominantly at the college and graduate level, but we welcome elementary and high school students as well! CHS is the source of material for lots of research that turns into books. So many of the books on our library shelves are by authors who came to the library seeking material from our collections in order to write their book. We also see a lot of documentary film makers here, as well as architectural historians, and journalists who are usually covering some aspect of local history.
How do we get our collection material?
Our original collection came from C. Templeton Crocker who, in 1922, donated his collection of rare books, manuscripts, maps, newspapers, and periodicals emphasizing overland travel, California’s transition from a Mexican province to statehood, and the Gold Rush. CHS has continued collecting with a focus on the documenting the diverse history of California.
When we acquire material to be added to our collection, it goes through a very stringent process because we want to make sure that we can take care of it, preserve it, and that it fits into our collection scope and policy. Unfortunately, we can’t take everything and that means we do have very specific criteria for accepting things.
What is your role at the library?
I see my role as one of public service. I am part of the public face of the library and the first person people come across if they have a question they need to find an answer to, whether in person or by phone or email. I am the person that they can talk about their project with and discuss what they are hoping to find. I am able to show them how to use our catalogs or let them know more about the items they are interested in, and if we don’t have anything that meets their needs, I can let them know about what other institutions and archives might be able to help them. So it is my job to connect people to the right institution and the best place in order to find what they are looking for – whether that be the history center at San Francisco Public Library, the archives at UCSF, or one of the many wonderful special collections held at the University of California libraries or the California State University libraries. For many people, they need to go to more than one place if they want a variety of information because much of it is scattered across different archives.
Can you highlight something interesting from our archives that you’ve been working with recently?
We are constantly digitizing and cataloging and finding items in our collection that we didn’t necessarily know were there. The goal is that everything that we keep here ultimately has a description that people can see through the catalog on our website. We have a rare book cataloger, we have a manuscripts archivist, someone who works exclusively with photographs, etc.
A few items recently came to me through our rare book and printed material cataloger. He stumbled upon this pamphlet of Camp Curry in Yosemite from 1912. This is so timely, because right now we have an exhibition up about the Transcontinental Railroad, which made Yosemite easier to get to and more accessible that it is now in many ways. In the pamphlet they have a bit about how you can go by rail and then by stagecoach – “people may obtain stopover privileges on their transcontinental tickets at Merced. Then they changed to Yosemite Valley Railway or take a Pullman Car directly from either San Francisco or L.A.” So that’s how they got there in the olden days which makes it a lot more accessible in some ways than it is now.
Other things we might have had in our collection for a long time but because we have so many items, I don’t know them all. Sometimes when a researcher requests something, it’s the first time I’ve seen it. This is occurred recently and I was surprised to discover the original drawings by Donald Graham Kelley of the official California Bear design for the CA state flag. These are the original illustrations from 1952. It’s so cool because it allows you to follow the design process. You see that Kelley was commissioned by the government to create this and then you see scientific feedback on the bear figure from Tracy Storer, professor of zoology at UC Davis, based on the initial sketches that were sent over.
Every now and then we discover material within our vaults that we didn’t realize even existed because it was hidden inside another collection. Thus was the case with this one last item I am intrigued with – it is a photographic album of images of Clark’s Waterworks from 1890-1891. This company existed before all of the other waterworks systems in San Francisco. It was a private enterprise from really early on. Clark owned a bunch of Eureka Valley and Glen Park and started his own waterworks business, damning and pumping water from that area and supplying it to the people around him, before the city owned the water systems.
We invite you to visit us at the North Baker Research Library at 678 Mission Street in San Francisco, Wednesday through Friday, 1PM to 5PM. You can access our digital library here and our online catalog here. The University of Southern California has also digitized and maintains images from our collection which can be found here.