Sutro’s Genie Librarian @ JAMBOREE!

As I walked through the Burbank Airport Marriott and into their Convention Center, flashbacks from my first visit at the official convention for the TV series Xena, over six years ago, filled my mind, from running into Michael Hurst (aka Hercules’ sidekick Iolaus) in the elevator to gallivanting around in my warrior princess garb with my friends.


Quite a few times, I had to pull myself back to the present. Unlike XenaCon, this conference was for professional reasons: the annual genealogy conference hosted by the Southern California Genealogical Society known more commonly as Jamboree, which took place May 31st-June 2nd.  Instead of running into my favorite characters, I was running into well-known genealogists and speakers. I knew I’d create just as many fond memories now as I did back then.

On the very first day, there was a moment when an instructor asked me to speak a little bit about the California State Library resources. Many attendees gasped at the mention of the name, Sutro Library, while some had no idea that one of the largest genealogy collections in the country existed in their very own state. After the session, a few attendees crowded around asking me questions and getting my contact information. This gracious welcoming of the California State Library’s presence at the conference stayed with me the entire weekend.

If I had to pick the greatest thing I learned at Jamboree, it is how to correctly pronounce DAR as if it were spelled D.A.R., the acronym for the Daughters of the American Revolution. Or maybe it was the tidbit of information about the “x” near the person’s name in the 1940 census, which notes who gave the information to the recorder? All kidding aside, I learned so much during my time at the conference and in a way, I am still processing it all. I learned about better strategies for navigating resources, including the treasure trove of information in criminal records (many of us assume our ancestors were law-abiding citizens, but you’d be surprised); the functionality of GoogleEarth (overlaying historical maps or tracing the trends and change points of your FAN club, ie Friends/Family, Associates, and Neighbors); and the different ways to access the collections since the majority is not indexed (Tip: best way to search is through the Catalog).

I also took workshops that covered researching ancestors from various ethnic backgrounds, such as Eastern European or Spanish. The most interesting and informative were two separate talks by Janice Lovelace, one on Native American Genealogy and another on the Black Experience in the Revolutionary War.


I learned so much during this visit and can’t wait to use what I learned to help researchers embark and continue their genealogical journeys. All of this could not have been done without the generosity and support of the California State Library Foundation.

Dvorah Lewis
Genealogy & Local History Librarian



Books that should be in Hogwart’s Library

On May 1st, the Sutro Library partnered with the J. Paul Leonard library and held its first-ever pop-up exhibit. In collaboration with archivist Meredith Eliasson from J. Paul Leonard Library’s special collections, we provided some very special books and artifacts for students to “pet” during the hectic and rather stressful week of finals – #booktherapy!


The event was held just a day before International Harry Potter Day, when Harry Potter defeated Voldemort, as well as on the Gaelic holiday Beltane.  It also commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Harry Potter book series. Our exhibit started at 12:30 p.m. but students were lining up to see our treasures 10 mins before we officially “opened.”  Sutro staff selected books that related to specific Hogwarts classes and professors, with each book receiving a Hogwarts “staff pick” sign.  The exhibit concluded at 2p.m. after having been seen by over 150 happy Harry Potter fans.


Students got the rare opportunity to touch and interact with some incredible objects. There was a beautifully illustrated encyclopedia of comets – chronicling them from the beginning of history through 1665, a Hebrew Talisman from Medieval Yemen, and a Nuremburg Chronicle printed in 1496 – just to name a few.  The theme not only gave us a chance to showcase some of the amazing antiquarian books and resources that Sutro has in abundance,  but was a great enticement to take a break from the stress of finals and have students get to know who we are.

Pop-up exhibit

And thanks to our wonderful volunteers Craig, Kelliher and Pat Munoz for your invaluable help in making this an awesome event!

Other Hands

I love the smell of a new book, the slight creak of the binding as it’s opened for the first time, the smooth, unmarked pages.  But I also love the smell of old books, the soft, forgiving bindings that have been opened time and time again, the pages that bear the marks of previous owners.  I am lucky enough to be working as a volunteer at the Sutro Library, so I get lots of opportunities to see and handle old books.

Sometimes the evidence that a book has been well-used (and, I always hope, well-loved) is shown in patterns of wear:  soiled corners that are reminiscent of the countless fingers that have turned the pages; rubbed covers that suggest a book has been slid in and out of a pocket or a satchel again and again.  Sometimes the evidence is more direct and personal, a note or mark in a margin. For instance, I came across this small hand recently, inked in the margin of Spanish religious text.  Its purpose is clear: check this passage out!


But I think my favorite thing to discover in an old book is a hand-written name.  Often when I find one, I catch myself saying the name out loud as I hold the book, enjoying a moment of connection with someone across centuries and thousands of miles.  Joannes Trotter was nice enough to date his signature, which had me counting on my fingers to figure out just how much time had passed since he set his name down and I picked his book up.


I found this slip of paper with its elegantly written name tucked into the pages of another Spanish religious text. The book itself must have been quite an elegant little volume when it was new, too – with copper catches and a patterned leather cover.


clasp with patina

In a Latin textbook published in Mexico in 1805, I found the same name written twice.  In one instance it was inscribed in a boyish hand, with an uncertain squiggle at the end.  On a facing page, it was written again, big and confident with an artful flourish.  I like to imagine that the owner of the book grew up while he made use of it and that his handwriting and confidence (and hopefully his Latin, too!) improved over the years.



Sometimes the books and names feel more familiar, but they hold just as much charm.  M. E. Van Beuren (I know from another signature elsewhere that her name was Melissa Elizabeth) carefully wrote her name in her copy of The Arabian Nights, published in 1827. [Other hand pic 7.]


Each of these books, and most others in the Sutro Library collection, have made long, complicated voyages through the hands of different owners, booksellers, auction houses, and libraries to end up in San Francisco.  And so, against all odds, Joannes Trotter in seventeenth-century Holland and Melissa Van Beuren on nineteenth-century Long Island have something in common with each other: they both owned books that have come to rest here. And I, and all the people who utilize the library collection, have something in common with both Joannes and Melissa when we have the opportunity to hold their books as they did and when we read their names.  That is part of the wonderful magic of libraries.



This post and all of the images are by Isabel Breskin, Sutro Volunteer.





Huzzah, Mazel Tov, and Happy Birthday Adolph Sutro!!!


Last Saturday, April 28, 2018, we had a fantastic turn-out to celebrate Adolph Sutro’s 188th birthday.  The afternoon included stories, exhibits, and cupcakes. Our amazing speakers covered different aspects of Sutro’s fascinating life and legacy with insight and humor. One of the highlights was Marc Shaffer, director of the film American Jerusalem. Shaffer’s film takes a look at the German Jewish pioneers who settled in San Francisco in the wake of the Gold Rush.  Adolph Sutro’s emigration story frames the narrative which focuses on Jewish assimilation within the context of the Gold Rush which allowed Jews to make inroads as never before.

The discussion concerning American Jerusalem was followed by an appearance of Adolph Sutro, portrayed by Allan Schwartz. Schwartz is a staple at San Francisco History-related events, and stayed true to character, rallying against the Southern Pacific Railroad, decrying “the Octopus must be stopped!” This reenactment of Mayor Sutro was followed by two San Francisco historians Marian Gregoire and Chelsea Sellin both of whom touched upon the strength and resilience of the women who made an impact on Sutro.  Gregoire presented “Adolph Sutro: Tales of the Women Who Affected His Life,” while Sellin spoke on “The Forgotten History of the Sutro Family Women.”

This event was coordinated by Dvorah Lewis, Sutro’s Genealogy & Local History Librarian and the planning goes all the way back to the Fall of 2017 when it was decided that the library would host a genealogy event for Sutro’s birthday. Dvorah started researching potential speakers, but was thrown several curve balls! The original two speakers who were going to speak had to cancel at the last minute, so it was “like a scavenger hunt trying to find other speakers. And unfortunately, most who specialize in Adolph Sutro were unavailable; didn’t live in the Bay Area; or had passed away.” In the end Dvorah persevered and found great speakers who contributed to a truly successful event.

Special thanks to our volunteers Craig Kelliher and Pat Munoz and to everyone else for an awesome event!

Next on our blog: books you’d find at Hogwart’s!

The WPA at the Sutro Library

The Work Projects Administration (WPA) was one of the key programs that brought relief to Americans in the wake of the Great Depression. Formed in 1935, it would go on to employ over eight-million people and create landmarks and buildings in almost every state. The WPA is perhaps best known for its  contributions to the oral history of the United States, as well as their amazing work building places like Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory.  In addition to the glamour of larger projects the WPA created, they also worked to help libraries across the country—including right here at the Sutro Library.

The WPA’s work in libraries centered on the idea that historic preservation and learning was something that was worth large amounts of funding. In libraries across the country, the WPA went in and organized books, created card catalogues, and even did detailed information aggregation about collections—like writing summaries or reviews. This work is what allowed so many libraries to have the necessary systems of organization that allowed them to function at higher levels and be more organized and accessible.

In the case of the Sutro Library, this is especially true. By the time of the WPA’s inception in 1935, the Sutro Library was only a little over twenty years old,  with the majority of erstwhile Mayor Adolph Sutro’s vast collection still yet to be organized and cataloged. The WPA came  and  ushered in “progress”  for the new library in the form of writing detailed descriptions and bibliographies of broadsides and pamphlets, creating card catalogs, and even publishing a newsletter about the Sutro Library.

But more pertinent than all these internal improvements, the WPA helped promote the Sutro Library. The work that the WPA did was vital in fostering awareness  of the Sutro Library. In newsletters and interviews, the WPA promoted the Sutro Library and gave it visibility. Up until this point, it became very clear (upon my reading of the WPA’s documents—their notes about the library and their collections, even newsletters) that the Sutro Library was not receiving enough press and media attention. It is the coverage that the Sutro Library received from being a WPA project site, that helped it to gain recognition. The bibliographic guides  that the WPA published on Sutro’s collections included works on “The Mexican Republic”, “Hebrew Scrolls”, and even “Early Americana.” Having those resources printed and let out to the public is something that allowed Americans to have access to the knowledge that Sutro Library was an institution that they could come and visit.

Though the WPA has long been disbanded, the idea of public works projects remains alive within the context of universities today. It is no coincidence that many academic internships are modeled on the idea of doing public service. Helping at a related public institution (a history major working at an archive or an engineer working on a local dam) is not just good practice for anyone in that field, but it is also a matter of paying one’s dues and contributing to one’s community. The WPA was, first and foremost, a way to improve America. Though it was, indeed, an effort to employ people during the worst economic period of U.S history, it also encouraged a sense of community values and contribution through the ideas of public working projects. In a time that was rather dark, the idea of coming together to strengthen the community through the building of works for the public is something that created lasting change. That legacy continues on with the level of public service and internships that are still required by many educational institutions today.

Interning at the Sutro Library and writing this blog may be very different from those WPA workers that catalogued books and created newsletters, but at the end of the day, I would like to think that there is a lovely similarity in our service and continued passion for spreading the word about this wonderful place.

Blog Post by Akiko Bates, USF Public History Intern

Joseph Banks: A Practical History Lesson

It’s 12pm on a Wednesday, and I am sitting at my usual desk, reading Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder looking to glean more information about botanist, gentleman explorer, and world traveler Joseph Banks. As I am immersed in the tale of Bank’s stay in Tahiti, and the sheer peculiarity of how a young man from Oxford found himself dancing naked by firelight with Tahitians in 1768, my phone buzzes. Normally, I don’t take calls when I am reading or writing (this is a historical academic internship after all) but this friend never calls me, and that alone set off alarm bells in my head.

So, I answer.

It’s final examinations at most schools, and I assumed that this friend—let’s call her Kay—was simply calling to rant, or scream, about how stressful it is to be simultaneously: a pre-med student, president of the PanHellenic council, and a Resident Advisor. I hear her voice over the phone, in many ways she sounds as weary as I imagined the travelers to be on Banks’ voyage to Tahiti. Her stress, her strain, all comes through the phone’s speaker as she exhales her worries about not being the smartest in her Chemistry class, and how sometimes she feels that she cannot compete with the academic prowess of others in her program.

Kay would never call herself book smart, and though she is incredibly intelligent, she is someone who pursues a life of science and medicine for the broader reason of exploration and discovery—not for the paycheck. I would never describe her as someone who just wants to clock-in-and-out as a doctor; she is someone you  could find the in jungles of South America working to advance foreign aid. She is, by all measures, far too unique to simply graduate medical school in a normal way, and find herself in a sterile, white, hospital room looking at run of the mill patients.

Yet, here is she is on the phone with me wondering what is the point of this all? Stressed. Tired. Downtrodden. Mentally and physically exhausted. I doubt she knows exactly of who it is that she reminds me of at this moment. So, I tell her about Holmes’ book sitting in front of me and that I thought she could glean a lesson from the person I am studying. Kay laughs, possibly for the first time in this whole conversation, and exhales. I can tell she is readying herself to take in yet another “boring” history lesson from her best friend. Without hesitation, I begin to tell her a little about Joseph Banks.

Joseph Banks, considered a key player in the second age of scientific enlightenment, was not an ordinary naturalist. Though many remember him as the man who managed to steal cochineal (a unique red dye that that Spanish had a production monopoly on) and bring it to England, he was so much more. Born into privilege that could have afforded him a life of never having to work, he found himself fascinated by botany and went on to study it at Oxford. He went on to  travel the world, accompanying the famous Captain Cook on his first circumnavigation of the globe, and used the trip to document the flora and fauna that he found there. Though his discoveries are what gave him great merit as a naturalist, it is not what makes him memorable in the eyes of history. At a time when European explorers sought to distance themselves from natives and subject an air of cultural, and ethnic superiority, Banks stands out as a man who truly integrated himself into the culture and lives of the indigenous people of Tahiti, and sought to write down vocabulary words, and even attempt to learn the language. He did not seek to put himself at the top of the pedestal, but rather tried to gain an understanding. He facilitated the exchange of science and technology during a period of immense upheaval during both the French Revolution and the American Revolution.

My friend Kay, like Banks, is someone who has chosen an unconventional path in her field. Rather than simply being stuck in a lab, she has traveled all over the globe, studying anthropology and science in places as diverse as Scotland, New Zealand, and Nicaragua. Her pursuit of science and her passion for life has led her to undertake these journeys with the same amount of gusto and fearlessness that I imagined Banks must have had. As I read about Banks climbing up the cliffs of Tahiti in sweltering heat in order to study the plant life of the island, I recalled Kay’s story of when she ate a fish heart with her host family on the cliffs of the remote  Polynesian island of Rapa Nui. Banks did and Kay does possess that extraordinary sense of adventure that seems to drive humanity’s greatest game changers.

What stands as the most extraordinary coincidence of this impromptu history lesson is that both Joseph Banks and my friend Kay got their start in Tahiti. Tahiti was Bank’s first tropical exploration. It’s what put him on the map as one of the great adventurer naturalists. Two hundred and fifty-six years later, Kay too would take her first trip abroad following in Banks footsteps to Tahiti, as a part of environmental and social studies group. I remember when she came home from that trip, looking tired and a tad sunburnt, with fire in her eyes as she told me: “I am going to see the world.” As a historian, I can only imagine this is exactly how Joseph Banks looked when, he too, returned from Tahiti. I was astounded. These two people, hundreds of years apart, seemed to be so incredibly alike.

So, I laughed when Kay told me that she was worried about competing with her classmates. She worried she simply couldn’t measure up to the academic perfection of those around her, which I found simply hilarious.

As a fledging historian, I know a little about who history tends to remember, and how they “measure up.” I know the individuals that stand the test of time, stand out in ways that they themselves cannot even see at the moment. Banks was, of course, a great naturalist, but that is not why he, above all the other naturalists at the time is so well remembered. It is his choices to stand out and pursue a different path that makes him memorable. It is what makes him a unique historical figure.

I found myself telling Kay, that it is these very same differences that will make her stand out as well. It is her sense of adventure, her unique path, that separates her from her classmates. Anyone, including Kay herself, can get straight As and have a picture-perfect GPA. It takes someone different—someone extraordinary to sail to Tahiti—and I can just imagine Kay’s boat is about to leave harbor.


Find out more about Banks and his incredible life by coming to the Sutro Library Archives and reading his actual letters and journals! They are truly fascinating! If you have any interest in what I wrote about in this post, please go ahead and contact the Sutro Library.

Blog Post by Akiko Bates, USF Public History Intern

On State History

It is easy to overlook state history. Often it is taught only within the paradigm of larger historical narratives. It becomes a jumping off point for major historical events or people. If one is lucky, you might learn about a famous person from your state or maybe even about a historic battle, but, more often than not, state history simply becomes something, well, rather stale. Yet, there is something to be said about the importance of learning state history. On the smallest of levels, society is enriched when people understand just what exactly shaped the culture around them. On a larger level, the stories contained in state history lend themselves to the complexity of extant narratives, while also being fruitful in their own right. It is the smaller known figures that can truly enlighten someone to the minutiae of a time period. If there is a failure to understand such tiny details, then we lose a microcosm of knowledge.

Take for example Robert Whitaker. He immigrated to California from England in 1869, and would go on to become a Baptist minister who had long term effects on the spread of pacifism and labor rights. Whitaker preached all throughout the Pacific Northwest, but he spent the majority of his life in California.  He worked not only to further labor rights by being an active supporter of unions and workers’ groups, but he also organized pacifist movements. In fact, in 1917, Whitaker was even arrested for putting on the first Conference of Christian Pacifists in Long Beach. Throughout his life, he continued to work with the Socialist Party of California as both an adviser and even a congressional candidate. Whitaker’s lifelong friendships with people such as: Eugene Debs, Upton Sinclair, and Fanny Bixby Spencer demonstrate his force within the labor movement. Whitaker’s work to further peace and non-violence is instrumental in showing the rise of pacifist movements in conjunction with labor activism at the turn of the 20th Century.

But what does this all mean? Why are people like Robert Whitaker so important? This comes back to the idea of state history. Whitaker remains somewhat unknown to the public. He is lost in the larger lens of big events. In the focus on state history, we can see the tinier pieces of larger movements. One can see the rise of socialism and labor activism through the life’s work of Robert Whitaker, and more importantly, begin to see how California (as a state) had an effect on labor and social justice issues. By taking the time to study and learn about the unique history, and historical figures, of any state, it is guaranteed that one can start to piece together a story—big or small. It might be learning about the impact a local figure had on a movement or it could simply be about the history of a landmark. Either way, it is something that makes people grow into the history around them. Learn about your city, your town, your state and the result may just surprise you.

Hint: the best place to learn about local history is often at an archive. Archives have an abundance of knowledge about specific locations, and even family histories. If you are interested in learning more about Robert Whitaker or about California (especially San Francisco), come and check out the Sutro Library at San Francisco State University.

Blog Post by Akiko Bates, USF Public History Intern

The Historian and the Flag

The California republic logo is perhaps one of the most iconic street fashion statements of the last five years. It is virtually impossible to go into any street apparel shop and not see the iconic bear flag. The muted reds and greens coupled with the California grizzly bear make the logo something that stands out in any collection. On a more cultural note, the bear flag embodies the freedom and fun that the California lifestyle has come to be associated with. To tote the bear flag is to dream of Venice Beach days, LA nights, and San Francisco sunrises. It is a constant symbol of adventure and innovation. It represents the best of the California lifestyle. It’s use by early streetwear and skate artists is what catapulted the Bear Flag to the level of cool we all know today. That coupled with the history of the “California Republic”, made this flag the epitome of cool we all know today. Strangely enough, this famously “cool” flag, comes from the most shocking of places.

When one thinks of the hip, ever-cool bear flag, their last guess is that it comes from a historian’s project. While historians may be a complex and interesting group of people, there is little doubt that use of the word “cool” usually comes into play when describing them. So how did a historian’s project lead to the bear flag? Well, it starts off with a man named Theodore Hittell. He wrote about the gold rush and the pioneering of California as it happened. But, unlike many historians, he was truly into living history. Hitell liked to chronicle not just the story of California, but also current events and people. When he interviewed John “Grizzly” Adams, a grizzly bear trainer and mountaineer, from 1857-59, he brought along artist Charles C. Nahl. Nahl was a painter, and he did some illustrations for Hitell, while he was writing about Adams. Those illustrations of Adam’s grizzly bears were apparently quite good because years later they would go on to inspire the illustration of the bear on the California state flag. All thanks to Hittell’s book.

Looking to learn more about Hittell? Parts of his papers and work are housed right here at the Sutro Library. Come find out more about the man who’s book accidentally inspired the famous bear flag.
Blog Post by Akiko Bates, USF Public History Intern