Heather Knight, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, February 2, 2009
The diary of Lillie Coit. Photographs of Joe DiMaggio. Impassioned
love letters written by Harvey Milk. Reams of papers from the San
Francisco's mayors. Artifacts from the 1915 Panama-Pacific
International Exposition, the Indian occupation of Alcatraz and the
first pot clubs.
It's all carefully preserved by city archivist Susan Goldstein and
her 15 staffers at the San Francisco Public Library's history center
who have a truly Sisyphean job: preserving and cataloguing the
history of a city where something momentous or just plain
off-the-wall seems to happen every week.
The library has just won a grant from the Mellon Foundation to
preserve historical items originally intended to be thrown away, but
for whatever reason weren't - old menus, theater programs, wine
labels, political flyers and other tidbits. They will become a part
of the California Ephemera Project.
"I feel like I'm just treading water," Goldstein said of the
unavoidable problem of never being able to get ahead of her work.
"There is so much going on here. It's such a center of foment and
social change, it's really fascinating.
"You never know what's going to come in on any given day."
On the library's sixth floor, there's a sure-favorite collection
among high-school students: the "Hippies Collection" which contains
1960s-era posters, flyers and newspapers from the Haight-Ashbury.
"They say, 'I want to see something really old like from the '60s.' I
say, 'The 1860s?' They say, 'No! From the 1960s when my parents were
young,'" Goldstein said. "They're so into it - they just say, 'Look
at this! Look at this!' "
The library also has potentially juicy items: mayors' letters and
documents that must be saved under city ordinance. Those usually come
in huge, unorganized stacks and take a year or more to sort.
In a staging area where new items wait to be catalogued, there are
about 125 boxes of documents from former Mayor Art Agnos, 70 or 80
from former Mayor Frank Jordan and 30 from former Mayor Willie Brown,
who was known for rarely writing things down.
"And then we'll have Gavin's!" Goldstein said. "There should be great
material in there."
Tami Suzuki, a librarian and archivist, said organizing big
collections like those of individual mayors - she's already done
several, including Joseph Alioto and George Christopher - is an
incredibly complicated process.
She begins by going through dozens of boxes, assessing any water or
insect damage and learning the history of the times to put the
documents in their proper context. She then determines the
appropriate order of the documents, files everything in acid-free
boxes with labels and writes a guide to the entire collection.
"It just all starts to make sense at some point," she said.
Researchers studying all sorts of eras and historical figures use the
archives, camping out at the library for weeks or years on end.
Therese Poletti spent every weekend for two years at the library for
her new book, "Art Deco San Francisco: The Architecture of Timothy
Pflueger." He designed many well-known buildings around the city,
including the Castro Theater and the Transbay Terminal.
She found some unusual photographs of him in the archives, including
posing with artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and some of him in
his early 20s, the earliest she'd found anywhere.
"I was like jumping up and down!" she said. "It was very fun to find."
While the history center is located on the Main Library's sixth
floor, rows and rows of old documents - including voting records,
marriage licenses and deeds - fill the giant space under Civic Center
Plaza that was once a convention center but now serves as library storage.
In the middle of the massive room sits Phillip Adair, another
researcher, who listens to music on his radio and hunches over
obscure documents. That's where he's been working for two years on
behalf of the Mormon church, diligently scanning records so church
members and others can more easily track their genealogy.
Then there are people like Lisa Helps, who is writing a dissertation
at the University of Toronto comparing the history of homelessness in
San Francisco and Victoria, British Columbia. She said a fun part of
using the archives is the fact that they're constantly growing.
"You never know when something will turn up in someone's office
closet and they'll take it to the city archives," she said.
The archives' Harvey Milk collection - including love letters,
intimate photographs, campaign material and a desk calendar
documenting his schedule until the day of his assassination - has
been pored over by an extensive array of Milk researchers.
The History Channel used the collection for a special on San
Francisco murders, London's National Portrait Gallery used it for a
"gay icons" exhibit, and the movie "Milk" used it to get the story
just right. Patricia Loughrey, a San Diego playwright working on
"Dear Harvey," said the paraphernalia made the former supervisor come
alive for her.
"The collection is what shifted him in my mind from a historical
figure to a three-dimensional person," she said. "It's kind of more
impressive he did what he did when you realize he was just a person,
not a giant or a hero. He was a regular person doing heroic things."
Milk's handwriting is on many of the pieces in the collection, making
them more intimate. Goldstein said she worries that as people write
fewer letters and keep fewer diaries, archives documenting the
current era will suffer.
"People don't keep information about their lives in the same way,"
she said. "But it's fine - if we keep every blog that ever exists,
we'll have more than we'll ever need to know."
For more information about the library's San Francisco History
Center, call (415) 557-4567.
E-mail Heather Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org.