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
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
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 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
Hello! We at the Sutro Library are kicking off the holiday season off right with an unboxing video! Go and check out our YouTube video on the California State Library YouTube channel. Click here to watch it!
Archives are one of those places that seem to have all the answers. Yet most archives do not have everything documented nor do they have everything cataloged. Nevertheless, there seems to be a story, and a story about each piece in a collection. That is why something like publishing a finding aid for the Diary of the British Soldier is a sort of archival boon for the Sutro Library in that it is now available for researchers to determine its place in the historical narrative. The diary is something of a mystery as all we know is that it was written from May 1793 to March 1795, by a solider in the British campaign in France. From hints dropped here and there within the diary, the speculation is that this man was of noble birth, but aside from that, not much is known. Inside his journal, one can find an abundance of details, and locations—but never his name.
This diary isn’t just an artifact that contains important first-hand accounts of the war. On a larger scale, it provides insight into the time period and the mentality of one person facing a life-or-death situation. Sometimes, it may feel like you are reading a daily schedule. Yet, that is part of the charm. Caught in between some of the more prosaic details, lies first-hand accounts of who returned from battles and what the weather was like. It is through minutiae, like those found within this diary, that historians are able to truly give life to the past and gleam insider knowledge of a time period. We see his life through his eyes, all the while not even knowing his name.
The mystery of this man is what makes the diary so fascinating. Reading the intimate details of someone’s life, but having no idea who they are is both terrifying and exhilarating. Working through the archives, it often occurs to me that it is what we choose to keep and store that becomes part of history—nameless author or not. In an increasingly digital age, it is simultaneously easier and harder to maintain records. On the one hand, everything we create in this time is now digital and thus may never decay or be lost. As the saying goes once you put it on the internet, it’s there forever. On the other hand, long term preservation of born digital objects is a challenge that archivists are presently grappling with.
In an age of increasing digital use, what becomes of our physical historical collections? When reading Diary of the British Soldier, I used a Works Progress Administration-made manuscript of the text. Though I learned cursive when I was younger, I can barely read the perfectly written words of the mystery soldier. It is moments like these, where I wonder: will people in the future be able to read what we leave behind? Will it still be accessible? As the general march of progress rolls along, what once-essential skills, like cursive, will become obsolete? What documents will bear names, or simply become nameless? As there are more and more records of human lives, which are the ones that will be remembered and saved?
To these questions, the Diary of the British Soldier becomes a comfort. Its author is nameless. It’s unassuming. It’s almost too ordinary. Yet, here it is being preserved in a climate controlled vault and handled with care. It has become historical. It has gained importance. Within the pages of this small diary, history is being created and shaped. The Diary of the British Soldier shows us that all details, all lives, all stories, deserve to be remembered—and sometimes—it’s the unknowns that make for the most interesting stories.
Blog Post by Akiko Bates, USF Public History Intern
The first annual SF Archives Crawl was held last Saturday, October 28th initiated by the San Francisco-based California Historical Society. Participating in the crawl were the San Francisco History Center, Labor Archives and Research Center, GLBT Historical Society, UCSF Archives & Special Collections and Levis Strauss & Co. Archives. This event is a special occurrence in many ways, not just because it is a gathering of archivists and history enthusiasts, but because if offers a unique chance to interact with the archives. Most archives are closed on weekends and, in many instances, visiting the collections is done on an appointment-only basis. During events like the archives crawl, there is a chance for individuals who otherwise might never research in an archive to come in and experience collections and resources in a less structured setting than would normally exist. Visitors are given an exclusive look at historical materials laid out for their eager mind, and hands, to explore.
This year the archives crawl’s theme was Counterculture and Social Protest. The Bay Area, and especially San Francisco itself, has a long history of social movements and social justice. Is there any other place in the world that saw the rise of the Beatniks, Hippies, and Harvey Milk? The exceptional nature of San Francisco with its diverse social and cultural fabric has been, and continues to be, fertile ground for the creation of a history that is complex, colorful, and replete with larger- than-life characters; something that rightly deserves to be celebrated in this year’s event.
In order to align ourselves with the theme of counterculture and protest, the Sutro Library focused on one particular set of movements—women’s suffrage. It is a little known fact that the Sutro Library is the official repository for material from the 2017 California Women’s March. So, of course, our contribution to the theme was to show the recent signs from these protests and then compare them to our already rich collection of women’s suffrage documents. Guests were taken on a journey through the “herstory” of women’s resistance. Our archival exhibit featured documents from 1841-1922 complimented by the modern signs used in the 2017 Women’s March.
Through this exhibit we hoped to show our visitors that women’s rights have been a long and hard fought challenge, and something that is still happening today. It seems almost counterintuitive that in order to process events occurring now, that we must look backwards to the events of old. Yet, it is key that we do this. History, and historical fact, is often presented in a way that makes it seem segmented. But that is not the case. In the same way that our exhibit illustrates a wide arc of time going from 1841-2017, so too does historical narrative. The events of history are not isolated, but exist on a continuum, connecting our past with our present. The stories we tell about our past don’t just start and stop neatly. Rather, they evolve and grow into new pathways in which to be explored and studied. The Sutro library wanted to show that despite the length of the story regarding women’s suffrage, it is nowhere close to being finished yet—this was the focus of our exhibit.
Events like the archives crawl give institutions like Sutro Library the chance to show their importance to society. By studying and celebrating the past, individuals open themselves up to a deeper understanding of the events that have already shaped the present. It is a time where we can remind the public the enduring power of historical study, and lend our collection to the minds of the people who are passionate about the past.
We can’t wait to see you there next year!
Blog Post by Akiko Bates, USF Public History Intern
The Maunsell White Family Papers have that unique smell of archival documents. There is the tender, vaguely stuffy, scent that surrounds each document—the smell of history. Though this entire collection of four stuffed boxes seems innocuous at first, the inside tells a detailed story of a family in 19th Century New Orleans. Preserved in gray boxes and manila folders, Maunsell White’s two million-dollar sugar plantation fortune is set against the decline of the American South. He starts by making a fortune in sugar after immigrating from Ireland, but loses the fortune within his lifetime due to severe financial loses (we can only speculate poor crop yields or bad investments). Yet, despite these financial losses, Maunsell White still triumphs after he is made an aide-de-camp to then General Andrew Jackson after the battle of New Orleans, and would be called Colonel Manusell White for the rest of his life. He was survived by his four children when he passed away in 1863. Within these folders, Maunsell White’s story unfolds in letters by people like Jefferson Davis and President Andrew Jackson, and features photographs in ornate lockets. It’s a saga. It’s a show. It’s a fragment of the past in a container. It’s the life of man contained in its own secret universe.
Yet, so often these items are kept hidden in family storage lockers, or unfortunately for posterity tucked away in shoe boxes in dusty attics – the stories they contain relegated to dinner parties or to family reunions or to the occasional middle school ancestry project. Like the documents, the stories become lodged deeper and deeper in some back corner of the familial mind, and despite their veracity–disappear into the ash heap of history.
And what happens to history when it is forgotten? It ceases to be part of the historical narrative, leaving it incomplete. It is usually assumed by most people that family history, family documents, have very little to do with what constitutes History. But that is simply not the case. History starts in the smallest of places! It starts with family history, which becomes part of local history, which becomes state history, which winds up shaping the historical narrative of a country.
In fact, the best details a historian could gather about a time period come from these intimate accounts of what daily life was like in that era. The Maunsell-White papers alone speak volumes about southern life in the 19th century, and more so they give accounts of important historical events. These documents, when placed in an archive or special collection, and that most people consider solely in terms of a family story,—contribute to the larger project of piecing together the past. A historian looks at several of these letters and documents, and uses information garnered from them to draw larger conclusions and gather data—this then becomes history writ large.
Collections, like the Maunsell-White Papers, must be preserved. They must be taken in and cared for like any historic artifact would be. There may be the pull at the family heartstring at the thought of sending these documents far from home, but isn’t it for the best? Instead of being lodged in someone’s attic or basement for the next thirty years, these items could be put to good use by historians, family members, and genealogists alike. Generations of family members can easily come to one safe place to see their history, instead of hoping the box in the attic has held up to the weather, bugs, and time. Housed in an archive or museum these papers will be kept safe, which means that the stories there in get to live on forever.
Maunsell White (photo courtesy of the Sutro Library)
Blog post written by Akiko Bates, USF Public History Intern
Special collections? Archives? What does this all mean?
The Sutro Library is an archive that specializes in housing rare books and records. Often, places like these are overlooked as resources and seen as almost “too special” to try and utilize. This is common misconception! In fact, the Sutro Library is like any other library. We want you to come and check out our books and explore all the resources that we have to offer.
So, here are some things you can do at the Sutro Library:
- Check out our detailed genealogical records
- Schedule appointments to come view our rare books (for information on making such appointment please click here)
- Get help with various research projects from library experts
- See our amazing collection of California Women’s March posters
- Check out our art exhibits
- Simply come and browse our wonderful collection
Hope to see you soon!