The Great Refusal

Libraries filled the grandest dreams of the United States’ richest, most powerful capitalists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Adolph Sutro stands out in part because his dream expired with him in 1898, leaving only unfinished plans for establishing in San Francisco a public library with his vast private collection of rare books and manuscripts as its core. This vision was partially revived by his heir and daughter Emma Sutro Merritt who, in 1913, donated Sutro’s collections—what remained of them after the 1906 fires—to the state of California. This gift came with the stipulation that it would remain in the city of San Francisco. It also came only one year after San Franciscans voted on whether or not another extremely wealthy individual would be allowed to develop San Francisco’s libraries. 

In 1901, Andrew Carnegie promised $750,000 to renovate San Francisco’s existing public library system and build new branches. “Carnegie libraries,” which can be found in cities across the United States, were a significant part of a philanthropic scheme through which Carnegie claimed to enable working and industrial classes to participate in civic, intellectual, and cultural life. These library buildings remain rich symbols of the U.S. myths of self-reliance and auto-didacticism. Carnegie felt that libraries were legitimate means of personal and community improvement, but many critics saw Carnegie himself as a compromised individual; he represented an unconscionable gap between the captains of industry and the working classes. In the eyes of San Francisco’s labor leaders, Carnegie’s money was tainted and least of all was there desire to be, in any way, indebted to him. 
That sentiment is felt strongly in a policy statement that was put to a vote during San Francisco’s November 1912 elections. The policy’s authors did not mince words: they sought “the rejection of, or the refusal to accept or use, any gift or donation from Andrew Carnegie for library or other public purpose.”

Officials felt these monies would give the industrialist leverage on City Hall, and ultimately favor the interests of an individual over the people. The text’s pro-union, pro-labor movement sympathies extends to the flyer’s production. The emblem in the upper right-hand corner is a “union bug.” It signals that a unionized workplace printed this document.  

Politics clearly work in and through libraries. Even the architecture itself—the façade, the floorplan, the shelves—can be a site of struggle as Scott Young argues in an essay on how Carnegie’s financial power shaped libraries “according to his own capitalist view of labor and learning.” Libraries were especially convenient as means of imposing these views because it is so hard to argue against them, as city labor leaders learned when the public firmly rejected their attempted refusal. The measure failed by a significant margin. In only two voting districts was their a majority in favor.

Jose Guerrero is a Cataloging & Metadata Librarian at Sutro Library.

The Floating World of Edo Japan

When exploring the Sutro Library’s rare collections, one notices that Japan’s Edo Period is well represented amongst the stacks. Hundreds of ukiyo-e (a genre of woodblock prints and paintings) images join travel narratives and thousands of photographs to tell the story of Japanese art and culture from 1603 through 1868 known as the Edo or Tokagawa Period. This historic period was known as the “floating world” (ukiyo-e in Japanese): a time of movement and travel, art and culture. The pleasure quarters were the main arbiters of taste at this time, and many of the prints focus on Geishas, Kabuki, tea houses, Sumo wrestling, brothels, and courtesans.

Politically, the Edo Period saw Japan governed by a feudal system, with the people existing under isolationist policies called Sakoku – laws forbidding and limiting interactions with the outside world. Japanese citizens were prohibited to leave Japan on pain of death.  It was ruled by the Tokogawa Shogunate whose capital was Edo – now the modern day capital of Tokyo. The Tokogawa emerged from a period of extended internal strife, and constant civil wars – bloodshed that had left the Japanese people traumatized and ready for change. Under Tokogawa rule, stability, peace, prosperity, arts, and culture blossomed.

Social structure

A person’s vocation was determined at birth and every citizen knew his or her place within the social order. And upon closer inspection, the images in the Sutro Library collection provide insight into this strictly regulated society. The Emperor (with almost no power), and the shōgun and daimyō were at the top of Society and controlled every aspect of Japanese society, including what types of clothing could be worn based on status. Underneath that, there were four classes of citizens ranking in the following order: samurai, peasants, craftsmen, and at the bottom, merchants. Because merchants didn’t produce anything, per se, they were the lowest on the social ladder. Each class of citizen had very elaborate rules of conduct. For example, merchants were not allowed to wear silk kimonos.

Yoshiwara and the Pleasure Quarters

The pleasure quarters were legally sanctioned and licensed by the Tokogawa Shogunate. These districts were alive with activity, vibrant and colorful, full of tea houses, music, and food vendors and luxury clothing shops, Kabuki theaters, Geisha, and brothels. The actors, Geisha, and courtesans were the celebrities of their day, influencing fashion, style, manners, and culture throughout Japan. The Tokogawa understood early on that these districts could curtail unrest in the merchant class, as well as provide entertainment to the many Samurai who guarded the cities, who were in fact required to live in half the year, away from their home towns.

These red light districts were usually walled-in, with a heavily guarded gate, and often moated.  No one could enter or leave without the proper documents or permission, and Geisha were never allowed to leave after 6pm. The largest pleasure quarter was in Edo called the Yoshiwara. It was a city within a city spanning 20 acres. And here were the places where the least powerful in society were able to exert some autonomy and agency. For example, Geisha were listed on the Yoshiwara registers as professional entertainers: musicians, singers, and dancers. The Tayu was the most elite courtesan of her day, and was highly educated, skilled in conversation and highly sought after. They had agency in that they could and often did reject clients, and they were trained to think that their social standing was often better than their clients. They were sometimes booked six months in advance so that the client could prepare for the honor. These districts were places where an increasingly wealthy merchant class could rise above their station and socialize with those higher up in ranking. For example, Haiku and Literary clubs formed where men from different walks of life met and interacted. It is noteworthy that 80 percent of the population of Edo was literate, and books stores were also a part of the Yoshiwara.

Travel and Identity

Another aspect of Edo Japan was travel as recreation. It was a time not only of increased urbanization, but consumerism which fostered a new travel culture. As time wore on people felt safe to travel to monuments, temples, and landmarks.  They were also motivated by curiosity, venturing out of the circumscribed worlds of their small village or farms. The major roads were well maintained, and a cottage industry of rest stops and tea houses along the Tōkaidō, the major artery from Kyoto to Edo, was born. The Tōkaidō originally had 53 stations (rest areas) along the road.  The gorgeous ukiyo-e prints in the Sutro collection reflect this travel culture, and served as souvenirs and mementos.

Religion and Philosophy

The underlying foundation of Edo society was neo-Confucianism focusing on ethical humanism and rationalism, a more secular view of the world than had hitherto been embraced by the Japanese. That said, Buddhism and Shinto were still extremely important, albeit less so politically. As previously explained, travel was a popular recreation for all walks of life, with more and more citizens leaving their closed enclaves to take to the open road. Economics would overcome many restrictions in Edo Japan allowing women to flex the boundaries previously attached to certain prohibitions. For example, women were able to obtain limited access to Temple spaces after making a “donation” or be allowed to purchase “an amulet against menstrual defilement while on the premises.”

Opening up Japan to the West

Sutro Library holds a first edition of Engelbert Kaempfer’s 1727 work, The history of Japan, giving an account of the ancient and present state and government of that empire; which for a long time remained the only source of information about Japan that Westerners had in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1848 United States Navy Commodore Perry arrived in Edo Bay with three warships forcing Japan to open up trade to the West. While the West praised Japan’s highly developed culture, Japan, for their part, viewed Westerners with suspicion and saw them as barbarians. Until 1848 Japan did not engage in any trade outside the country, with the exception of the Dutch. When a foreigner was granted entry, it was only for a short time, and every step tightly regulated. Even Western books were forbidden from being translated – with few exceptions. So when Perry arrived forcing a trade agreement, Japan entered into the modern world for good or ill.

The End of Edo

The images found within the Sutro collection reflect the “floating world” and the rich culture of Edo Japan. The photographs are part of ten volume set that was created to provide westerners with souvenirs, but also to provide western audiences, who were fascinated by Japanese culture, with a look into a culture blanketed in secrecy for over two hundred years. The images tell stories of a Japan which was rapidly disappearing; an iconic culture that was quickly replaced by the modernizing that took hold after Commodore Perry entered Edo’s harbor.  

Sir Joseph Banks 200th Anniversary

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Sir Joseph Banks. The event is being commemorated throughout the world and a website hosted by the Sir Joseph Banks Society has links to the various institutions involved.[1] The California State Library – Sutro Library holds one of the world’s largest collections of Sir Joseph Banks’ letters, original maps, and ephemera. While the name Captain Cook is widely known, that of Joseph Banks is not, even though his contributions to science and exploration are legendary.  Banks was the longest-running president of the Royal Society, facilitated the exchange of science and information between experts all over the world, and was the leading founder of the African Association.

[1] 2020: 200th Anniversary. Sir Joseph Banks Society, retrieved 18 May 2020 from

The Royal Society plays a central role in Banks’ story. It is the United Kingdom’s scientific academy, its scientific arm. It describes itself as a fellowship of eminent scientists from around the globe with its motto “’nullius in verba’ taken to mean ‘take nobody’s word for it’. It is an expression of the determination of the Royal Society Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.  The society’s origins lie in the 1660s when several natural philosophers and physicians met establishing the first “learned society” following a lecture by Sir Christopher Wren.

In the beginning the society oversaw advancements in science. One member published the first issue of Philosophical Transactions in 1665, which set out to establish the concepts of scientific priority and peer review. This journal is now the oldest continuously published science journal in the world. And just to give some idea of its endeavors, the Royal Society published Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment documentation demonstrating the electrical nature of lightning, and funded Captain Cook’s journey to Tahiti. It was on this journey that Cook was to observe the Transit of Venus and explore and map regions in the South Seas.

For Joseph Banks, it was joining Captain Cook on this first voyage of discovery that his life’s journey also began. In 1768, the 26-year-old Banks, having secured a position as Royal Botanist on the HMS Endeavour voyage, set sail. The voyage took the HMS Endeavor to Brazil, Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia. From 1768 through 1771, the crew managed to find over 3,000 plants, observe the transit of Venus, and map the coastline of Australia.

Following his voyage with Captain Cook in 1771, Banks soon became president of the Royal Society and so began his lifelong involvement in exploration, science, and discovery. Not only was he involved in the formation of economic policies for Australia, but also India, and the West Indies. He believed in the possibilities of exploration and overseas trade to improve British markets. He did so in many ways, not the least by leading projects in experimenting with crops and botanicals from across the world. To that end, Banks established several botanical gardens including Kew, in London, which cultivated plants that were thought to provide valuable income to England’s economy.

Sir Joseph Banks was also involved in other activities, like the search for Timbuktu (“the lost city of gold”) through the African Association. The African Association, or the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa, was formed in London on June 9th, 1788 by Banks. The creation of this group, which included many prominent explorers, was the beginning of what has been called “the age of African exploration” for Europeans, since the interior of Africa remained almost completely uncharted. And while some members of the African Association were abolitionists, Banks’ interest in sending individuals to explore the interior of Africa was motivated by the desire for scientific, commercial, and strategic gain, not the abolition of the slave trade. Many explorers who were sent by Banks never returned home, dying from starvation, disease, or from conflicts with indigenous populations.[1]

[1] Boahen, A. (1961). THE AFRICAN ASSOCIATION, 1788-1805. Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana, 5(1), 43-64. Retrieved May 28, 2020, from

Banks’ had his hands in many trades including coffee, tea, – an important and lucrative industry—and wine. London would have not have been so famous for their tea parties if it wasn’t for Banks believing that transferring tea plants and acquiring the skills of growing and drying tea would give Britain economic gain through trade.[1] In late 1819, the London Genuine Tea Company produced, with Banks help, an illustrated account of tea cultivation in China and on the tea crops of Southern France and Corsica. How we drink tea today would not have happened without the efforts that Sir Joseph Banks took in establishing the tea trade, and its cultivation, and preparation.

[1] Baldwin, R. C. D. 1993. “2. Sir Joseph Banks and the Cultivation of Tea.” RSA Journal 141 (5444): 813–17.


Joseph Banks, like many other historical figures, made decisions based on biases and expediency. His interest in the colonization of Australia as well as other areas of the world very often ignored indigenous peoples’ claims to land. Additionally, relationships with native peoples were often highly exploitative. It’s important to acknowledge that history is complicated, and through the contents of the Sir Joseph Banks papers we see this historic tension played out. Aside from Banks deep interest in Botany and Natural History, there is entitlement, and political gain, as well as a belief by a Colonial power that they could ]make the world a better place through science and technology.

[This blog post was written by Dylainie Nathlich, Graduate student in the SFSU Museum Studies program, Spring 2020.]

Christmas Dreaming

Since December is closely associated with many treasured winter holidays, I thought I would highlight two different acquisitions we received that focus on the secular side of Christmas. When considered together, they tell a complex story of economic struggle and representation for the African American community.

The first acquisition features a full page ad in the New York Times paid for by Ebony magazine entitled, “We’re dreaming of a black Christmas” and dated November 30, 1967.

Full page ad placed by Ebony Magazine in the New York Times dated November 30,1967

This title might be a nod to the first line of Bing Crosby’s best-selling secular Christmas song, “White Christmas,” which he first sang on the radio on December 25, 1941, just weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Or the title might be a nod to Martin Luther King Jr.’s soaring “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, invoking an image of what the American promise could be if all Americans, Black and white, were “…able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”[i]

Unlike the song lyrics’ wistful longing for Christmases past, this Santa’s longing is more aligned with Martin Luther King Jr.’s yet-to-be-realized vision of a truly equal America. According to the ad, he dreams of a time when society recognizes  the important role African Americans play in the American economy and for representation.

More specifically, the ad is a call for advertisers to realize the economic buying power that exists in the African American community. According to the ad’s text, in 1967, African Americans comprised 28% of the population in key cities and “…that 95% of the country’s 23 million Negroes live where 2/3 of all retail sales are made.” The ad states that African Americans were earning $30 billion a year in 1967, with much of their money going towards food, home furnishings, and personal-care items.

Close up of the Ebony ad’s text.

The ad also claimed that advertising in Ebony magazine was the best way to reach this potential market. According to Ebony, the majority of their readers—a reported 2,500,000 households every month—did not subscribe to the popular magazines of the time (like Ladies Home Journal and Look) so if companies were advertising only in these publications, they were missing the African American demographic.

This ad is part of the historic continuum surrounding post-World War II Black consumerism. In the 1960s, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, and other community leaders worked arduously on promoting Operation Breadbasket: an initiative that sought to improve the economic status of African Americans by fostering economic empowerment and political equality. Jesse Jackson’s Black Christmas Campaign in November 1968 came a year after this ad was printed and exists as one example of the type of programs created by Operation Breadbasket.  The Christmas Campaign urged African Americans to shop at Black-owned businesses during the holiday season and featured the first-ever Black Christmas parade in Chicago:

“Instead of watching Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus cavort in faraway New York, Blacks in Chicago would put on their own parade, with their own floats, their own bands, their own beauty queens, their own jovial advertisements.”[ii]

At the center of the Chicago parade was a more representative Christmas figure:

“For instead of Santa Claus—who according to [Jesse] Jackson was too old, fat, and white—Jackson featured at Black Christmas a new character known as “Black Soul Saint,” who came from the South Pole rather than the North Pole and lingered along the equator sufficiently to turn up wearing a dashiki of black, with yellow, red, and green trimmings, the colors of the flag of Ghana. Henceforth, the Soul Saint would preside over the season of Christmas, a Black figure whose gifts were not toys or sugarplums but “love, justice, peace, and power.”[iii]

The Chicago Committee on Urban Opportunity (CCUO)’s float in Chicago at the Black Christmas Parade. Chicago Defender Newspaper, December 9, 1968. (Image courtesy of Google Arts & Culture)

The idea of ‘Black Soul Saint’ calls attention to another critical message found in the Ebony ad: the importance of representation.  According to the ad’s text, African Americans wished to see themselves represented in advertisements; that they wished to see ads specifically geared towards their community, “…that the Negro responds to advertising in which he can see himself…” And that meant seeing themselves in Christmas too. By using a Black Santa in the ad, Ebony reminded the masses of the fluid nature of Christmas; that it was not an event solely featuring a Santa Claus figure frozen in time as an elderly white man.  

While Santa Claus has loose ties to St. Nicholas, the Medieval bishop of Myra, secular Santa Claus is imaginary and has changed over time. Thanks to the drawings of German American cartoonist Thomas Nast in Harpers Magazine[iv] and the decades-long marketing efforts of the Coca-Cola Company[v], the image of the jolly, elderly, white male Santa dressed in red is so far removed from the historic Catholic bishop that expanding the idea that Santa Claus can be any ethnicity, or gender for that matter, is not really a stretch at all.

Thomas Nast’s 1881 Santa Claus known as “Merry Old Santa Claus.” (Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

The push for African Americans to be represented in all aspects of American life—including the Christmas holiday—is needed to advance our society. For many Californians, we might find this assertion self-evident, but it may not be so for other Americans. This brings us to our second acquisition: a 1971 press photo showing the damage to Charles Harris’ front windows when someone shot at his suburban St. Louis, Missouri home.  

Photograph of Charles Harris pointing out damage to the front of his St. Louis, Missouri home.

The incident captured in the photograph was the second time someone had shot at Mr. Harris’ home. The first incident happened just weeks before when he had placed a black Santa figure on top of his roof. The photograph’s caption reads:

“St. Louis: a black grocery owner who moved to suburban Spanish Lake because he no longer felt safe in his city residence arrived home 12/31 to find the front of his house damaged by at least 25 gunshots. Charles Harris, 35, pointing out some of the bullet holds in door said, ‘The hardest thing will be to explain it to my five kids.’ Harris, a widower said, ‘I’m trying to rear them properly without racial hatred.” The shooting was the second incident within two weeks at the Harris home. A black Santa Claus Harris placed on the roof was damaged by gunshots and a front window was broken 12/19. Before the black Santa was put pu [up], Harris said, he had no trouble as the only black resident in the area.”

Studying these pieces together reminds followers of the Christmas holiday of how important it is to bring forth the holiday’s promise: that goodwill towards humankind must be extended to everyone, regardless of age, color, race, and gender. The Christmas spirit transcends all of these differences and unites humans under the umbrella of love for our communities and for the world.

Happy Holidays!

We would like to thank the California State Library Foundation for making these acquisitions possible.

This post is by Mattie Taormina, Director, Sutro Library.



[ii] Enrico Beltramini. “SCLC Operation Breadbasket: From Economic Civil Rights to Black Economic Power.” Fire!!!, vol. 2, no. 2, 2013, pp. 5–47. JSTOR, Accessed 28 Nov. 2020.

[iii] Ibid.


[v] ]


Adolph Sutro’s original vision of a public research library in the city of San Francisco can be seen on his bookplate, whose design he personally approved and is used to this day. One gets the feeling that his vision was ill-fated from the start. The first copies struck revealed the plate contained a typo—“vincit” (Latin for conquer) was spelled “vincet.” Sutro and his librarian balked at the error. A bookplate is like a tattoo for books: it’s meant to be permanent. Not a place for typos!

There are other, less conventional marks of ownership. Remembered for the marks he left on the early United States, Thomas Jefferson was also an avid reader and book collector who left a distinct mark in his books. He did not use bookplates, but rather initialed his books by combining a printed letter with his handwritten one.

While revisiting some books in our Mexicana collection, I came across Sebastian Caesar Meneses’s Sugillatio Ingratitudinis. The Sutro copy lacks the title page, so I set about checking to see if the rest of the text was complete. I noticed a mark at the foot of a page:

Then another:

And another: 

All seemingly…

            …in the same position.

Taken individually these may seem like stray marks at first, but I tried reading them together to see if anything coherent emerged:


Sure enough, the letters identify the book’s former owner, Bernardo de Arratia, a Franciscan friar who in 1745 was elected to one of the Order’s highest offices in colonial Mexico. Like Jefferson, Arratia’s ownership mark uses the area of a printed page known as the direction line, whose signature marks and catchwords helped guide the printer and binder in the proper manufacture and assembly of a book. The direction line is read today to learn about a book’s structure, and in this copy also directs readers to one of the book’s previous owners.

A later page is conspicuously autographed, which begs the question: what purpose did the more cryptic version serve?

The Sutro copy is in fact missing a few leaves, as was revealed when compared to digitized copies from the University of Toronto’s Fisher Rare Book Library and the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma. But the playful nature of Arratia’s mark of ownership adds to this copy something unique.

Virtual Makeover: Sutro Library’s Genealogy Webpage

Since mid-March of this year, the Sutro Library staff continue to work from home and over the past six months, I have been asked a few times “What can a librarian do from home?” While I miss working in the stacks, helping researchers, and collaborating with my colleagues, the short answer is that there are plenty of projects that can be done off-site and from our homes. One of these projects has been to improve the Sutro Library’s webpages.

Almost three years ago, the California State Library gave it’s webpages a more modern and accessible makeover. Some of you may recall, that the previous design was static and outdated, especially when compared to other library websites.

In “What makes a good library website?” by Sabrina Unrein, a then graduate student of the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University, fifty state library websites were surveyed to answer that eponymous question. The author often highlighted aspects of the California State Library’s new website, and even praised it for its modern web design. In addition to design, a couple of other factors to take into consideration for a great website are accessibility (e.g. contrasting colors and meaningful link text) and security (e.g. data is encrypted)–all of which the California State Library’s websites achieve.

While Sutro Library did benefit from the redesign, our pages had aspects that did not match the modernity of the rest of the new website. Just like the physical genealogy collection, webpages need ongoing maintenance in order to continue to meet users’ needs. And now more than ever, our website acts as a virtual front door to our Library, and so it’s imperative that the site accurately reflect the richness and diversity of our collections. With all of this in mind, we went to work on the Sutro Library’s Genealogy webpage!

Navigating the Wayback

Before we explore these new changes, let’s first take a look at how the Sutro’s genealogy page has evolved over the years. We are able to do this with the help of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

Screenshot of the Wayback Machine’s homepage located at

This site allows us to travel through time seeing the website as it appeared on specific dates in the past. These archived pages are referred to as “captures” and allow users similar functionality as if that version of the site were still live today. Keep in mind, the capturing technology isn’t able to archive everything displayed on a page. For example, sometimes photos aren’t captured, but the capture still provides a great way to track a website’s changes. This is also a great site you can use if you receive an error message when clicking on a link.

To use the Wayback Machine, all you have to do is visit the Internet Archive and the Wayback Machine database is located at the top of the page. Type in the URL of interest. After clicking enter, then choose a year. Hover over a date of interest and choose a capture. Sometimes days had multiple captures throughout the day, but more often than not, there will be only one capture. The database will then take you to the archived view of that website. (See gallery below for visual instructions)

The Evolution of the Genealogy Page

Following these same instructions from above, we can track how the Sutro Library pages, specifically the Genealogy page, have changed over the past few years:

For years prior to today’s current version, the content of the genealogy page focused heavily on the collection itself, missing the opportunity to highlight other aspects of the Library such as our wonderful programming or highlighting genealogy-specific blog posts from The Sutronian. In the last screenshot above, you’ll see we kept much of the original description and added information on the services we provide such as look-ups and InterLibrary Loan.

Screenshot of the middle portion of the Sutro Library Genealogy webpage comprised of six tiles with the following headings: Events at the Library; Bay Area Genealogy Calendar; Getting Social; Books on Display in Reading Room; Physical Collections; and Online Resources.

On the new genealogy webpage, you’ll find six central tiles providing information on events at the Library, the Bay Area Genealogy Calendar, the Library’s social media presence, books on display in the Reading Room (currently on hold due to the Library’s temporary  closure), the physical collections, and online resources. With this revised content and new layout, we feel it will be easier for users to find the information they are looking for or maybe even find information they weren’t expecting to find in the first place. Below these six tiles, we also provide information on visiting us, borrowing, remote access, and look-up and scan requests.

Because the Sutro Library prides itself on having one of the largest genealogy collections West of Salt Lake City, we couldn’t just devote one tile to the Physical Collections – we had to have an entire page! Once you click on the heading of the tile you’ll be taken to this new page of the same name. You’ll be met by a view of the Reading Room along with a brief description on the collection and tips for searching the catalog. Scrolling down you’ll find highlights of the resources in the genealogy collection. No longer are they listed as bullet points, instead they have a dedicated tile with an image and a detailed description.

Upcoming Virtual Makeovers

The Library staff are currently reviewing other pages for revision, including the Rare Collections and Exhibits’ pages. The next page for your Genealogy Librarian to work on will be a programming webpage where users can find information on past events including descriptions, flyers, photos, and links to recordings when available. Look for these changes in the next few months.

Now that I have provided an overview of our newly-redesigned genealogy webpages, it’s time for you to explore the Sutro Genealogy webpage and the Sutro Genealogy Physical Collections webpage! Make sure to check out the “Getting Social” tile to sign up for our new monthly e-newsletter, which is just one more way that we are maintaining contact with our dedicated Sutronians during this time!

We welcome any feedback you may have so please reach out to us at

We’d like to thank Karina Robinson, the former Special Assistant to the State Librarian, without whom we would not have had a web page to improve to begin with!

Today’s blog post was written by the Sutro Library’s Genealogy Librarian, Dvorah Lewis.


Unrein, Sabrina. (2019). “What Makes a Good Library Website?” Syracuse, NY: iSchool Public Libraries Initiative at Syracuse University.

Links to web archived pages:

January 16, 2018

January 30, 2018

February 2, 2018

September 23, 2018

Stephen Austin and the colonization of Texas

One of the things that you learn working in the field of archives and special collections is how powerful artifacts and historical resources are in illuminating the past in new and dynamic ways. Beginning a journey with a primary source helps position us to understand the context of past culture and societies in ways we might not have otherwise done. Written by the so called “Father of Texas,” Stephen Austin, and printed in November of 1829, the Translation of the laws, orders and contracts on colonization : from January, 1821, up to this time, in virtue of which Col. Stephen F. Austin has introduced and settled foreign emigrants in Texas, with an explanatory introduction., is an 85 page monograph (which is a fancy term for a specialized piece of writing on a single subject), that provides insight into the development of Texas, both in terms of its economic growth as well as its social structures.

Figure 1. From the first Congress of the newly independent Mexico, 1821.

Austin’s ‘Translation of the laws, orders and contracts on colonization’’ is one of many sources for Mexican history at the Sutro Library, that help tell the story of Mexico’s development under Spanish rule, the Empire that followed, and finally the Republic that was born.  The Mexican collection contains manuscripts, maps, over 30,000 pamphlets and broadsides, some of which don’t exist elsewhere, and monographs. The Sutro also has an extensive collection of British and American pamphlets, Civil War source material, and parliamentary debates on slavery.

Figure 2. Broadside 1821 with summary of Indulgences with official seals.

Colonization of Texas 1821-1829

Stephen Austin wrote the ‘Translation of the laws, orders and contracts on colonization’ to provide information to potential settlers on the legality of Austin’s colonization project. Prior to 1821, Texas, then on the northeastern borderland of New Spain, was an unstable and sparsely populated frontier.  There was little, if any, support from Mexico City, and the perils faced by Tejanos (cultural descendants of Spain) who lived in the area in what was called Tejas now Texas were many: lack of infrastructure, starvation, floods, droughts, and settlers intruding onto lands owned by Native Americans. Most Tejanos lived in abject property. To underscore how dire their situation was, in San Antonio in 1810 most settlers didn’t even have shoes.

Tejanos sought to improve the economy and were thus eager to support colonization from the United States. In 1821 Moses Austin (Stephen Austin’s father) was officially granted a contract by the government in Mexico City to settle in Texas.  He, along with his son Stephen Austin were to recruit 300 families to relocate to Texas and be given land to cultivate. However, Moses Austin passed away that same year and so the contract was given solely to Stephen Austin. Translation of the laws, orders and contracts on colonization is part of this history.

Figure 3. “Austin’s Settlement,” Daily National Journal, August 10, 1829.

Historians sometimes talk about immigration in terms of push and pull. What events ‘push’ people to leave their homes to go to a different country, and what is the ‘pull’ of the country to which they are emigrating to. And what motivated Anglo Americans to leave and become Mexican citizens in the early 1820s was a recession followed by a market that prevented most from buying land. The pull was the fertile grounds near and close to the cotton trade center of New Orleans, as well as a global explosion in the demand for cotton. Stephen Austin used newspapers and advertising to entice Americans and had others attest to the opportunities to be had.  He wanted to show he had legal sanction to settle colonists, United States citizens, with huge tracts of land for plantations that were near several rivers, and adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico’s Atlantic trade centers.

Figure 4. From collection of Civil War envelopes at Sutro Library.

Cotton Markets

“The primary product that will elevate us from poverty is Cotton and we cannot do this without the help of slaves” – Stephen Austin, 1824

Along with sugar and tobacco, cotton was one of the first luxury commodities.  Austin knew the land in Texas would be fruitful for growing cotton, and along with its close proximity to trading ports along the Gulf Coast, made it highly enticing.  The phrase “Cotton is King” was one that communicated cotton’s growth as a global industry, becoming the first mass consumer product.   The importance of cotton in the early part of the Industrial Revolution was twofold:  its comfort and its affordability. These factors created high demand for the textiles that were being produced from Great Britain.  “English mill owners, as a result, began buying as much of the fiber as they could (British imports soared from 56 million in 1800 to more than 660 million by 1850) as the plant became one of the most valuable commodities in the entire Atlantic world.” 

However, as leading scholar Andrew Torget noted,

“at precisely the same moment the cotton revolution made slave labor more profitable than ever, the rising power of global antislavery forces put that labor system under sustained  political attack for the first time in human history.  That remarkable confluence, in turn, produced a series of escalating battles between pro- and antislavery forces that polarized politics within the United States and drove an ever-widening divide between the northern and southern halves of the country.” 

Figure 5. Circa 1824
Figure 6. Broadside Sutro Mexican collection. Santa Anna was a key figure in Mexico’s revolutions and political upheavals.

Mexico Empire to Republic

Political instability marked 1820s Mexico. After Mexican Independence from Spain was achieved in 1821, Mexico became an empire ruled by Don Agustin de Iturbide. This constitutional monarchy was dissolved in 1823, and the First Mexican Republic was established, lasting until 1835. The first republic was set up as autonomous states governed by a constitution.  Mexico was transformed again under General Santa Ana, and became the Centralist Republic of Mexico.  During this pivotal moment in Mexico’s history, the project of colonization was being undertaken by Stephen Austin, and he had to lobby leaders in Mexico City to allow him to continue his settlement of Americans in Texas, and to also be able to have these settlers bring their slaves. Tejanos fought to allow slavery into their constitution in order to improve the economy and establish trade with the United States, but to no avail.

Figure 7. From collection of Civil War envelopes at Sutro Library.
John Bull is the British version of what Uncle Sam means in the United States. They represent the personification of the government and the country.  The Civil War crippled the English textile industry and these images reflect the fear of Northerners that Britain might support the Confederacy.
Figure 8. From collection of Civil War envelopes at Sutro Library.

Debates over Slavery, 1824-1830 

In 1827 Article 13 of Mexico’s Constitution dealt the final blow to Austin, his Anglo colonists, sympathetic legislators, and Tejanas, who wanted a system of slavery in the settling of northeastern Texas. It stated that black children born on Texas plantations would be free citizens at birth, making Stephen Austin’s goal to settle more families and increase his own wealth almost impossible.

Figure 9. Article 30. from the Colonization Law of 1823 printed in Stephen’s Austin’s ‘Translation of the laws, orders, and contracts on colonization.”

This monograph provides insight into Mexico’s turbulent 1820s as itstruggled to define what it was that made them a free republic. Debates on centered in Mexico’s political arena were solidly anti-slavery and the Enlightenment’s ideals of liberty and freedom were counter to allowing slavery to exist in Mexico. Stephen Austin introduced slavery into Mexico at a unique moment in the history of cotton and labor.  His ‘Translation’  gives us a unique opportunity to discuss the intersection of culture, cotton, international trade, slavery, and American westward expansion.

Figure 10. From Sutro pamphlet collection.
Figure 11. From Sutro pamphlet collection.

The Wonderful World of Indentures!

[The following entry is from guest blogger and SF State University undergraduate, Jack Prunty, who volunteered for the Sutro Library before he graduated in May. He supplied all of the text and images that follow.]

Most of you are probably wondering what an “indenture” is. It sounds whimsical enough, and it is, to some level of degree! For those who do not know, an indenture is a legal form or agreement between parties, with some agreements involving up to two or three separate parties alone. While researching the Sutro Library’s collection of indentures, I was on the lookout for any document that might be related to “servitude,” specifically, anything relating to the early forms of labor in the United States. In the last three months, I reviewed thirty documents in this previously uncatalogued collection and described each indenture—many having not seen the light of day in quite some time.

When opening the map carrier that held the documents, I released a wave of historical background that has gone untouched for quite a long time.

Map carrier case used to transport historic indentures to the reading room.

Many of these documents are hand-written on “vellum” (which is animal skin and was a common way to hold deeds of business between parties). Many of these legal documents contained extremely valuable information about how transactions worked. For example, to whom would “witness” said transactions between parties.

Example of witness signatures from one of the Sutro Library’s many indentures.

Many of these documents would also contain “stamps” such as an “embossed” and or a “wax” stamp or seal, and these would be the “official” ways to record the indentures credibility.

An example of a wax seal found on one of the Sutro Library’s indentures.

Also, to note, many were signed by those who were recording said documents, such as stewards or legal court representatives. Unfortunately, I did not find any indentured servant records, as many of the said transactions were about land deeds, and many occurred in Great Britain and at various times (mostly 1700’s and 1800’s).

There were exactly two documents that I found extremely noteworthy of interest that I believe people should hear about, because personally, both are not only fascinating, but also worth attention to analyze and looking at for their information.

The first, is from Washington D.C. and is dated in the mid-1800’s. This caught my attention immediately because of the D.C. mailing stamp with first President George Washington on the cover and seeing the name “George H. Williams”[1] on the cover, was indeed quite fascinating:

Close up of George Williams’ indenture.

Going even a step further, it is important to note that Williams was paying off a specific branch of a bank known as the “Freedmen’s Savings Bank”[2]  (which at the time was a part of the Reconstruction Era, helping freed slaves have a banking system). And this raised more questions than answers for me: Why was Williams (a white politician from Oregon) paying off a loan he himself received from the Freedmen’s Savings Bank? Much of the research is easy to find about Williams  and will detail his political support for Reconstruction and the rights of now freed slaves, but the question is still raised: why would a privileged white man in Reconstruction society have taken a loan from a bank that only works for the benefit of those that actually need the funds? I myself still question, why was he paying off the Freedmen’s Bank?

The second indenture that I wish students would come to see doesn’t look like an indenture at all, rather a piece of art sent from Heaven itself:

A large handwritten and illuminated indenture made of vellum.

The historical background behind it is little known (due to all the text being in Latin) and the names described–at least to me–were difficult to distinguish between vast importance or on the lower chart of society. A hand-drawn illustration of Jesus Christ on the Cross with his followers looking up, and behind Jesus, was almost a man surrounded by clouds with a white beard (this is not Santa Claus but rather an interpretation of what God is supposed to look like):

A close up of the indenture’s cartouche featuring Jesus Christ on the cross surrounded by his followers.

On the sides of the indenture were drawings and sketches of objects (one being an actual grape and vines):

 It’s not even so forth put on a piece of “vellum” or “paper” but rather looks like a brown canvas that an artist would use, not something of legality for an indenture, and has more artistry than just a legal formality.

I myself gathered that it was vellum, due to the distinguishable signs between the two examples. From the evidence that I gathered, it was both “legality” with “religion”, which shockingly, most indentures are of that time period. But this, feels different, you feel holiness behind it. You forget that it had at one point been a legal document. This evidence suggests to me that it was from Spain or from other Latin-speaking country that could fluently write about the indenture itself. I myself couldn’t even find or trace the date on this legal document, but overall a great piece to ask questions such as how was religion and law blended so effortlessly in the past? What does that tell us about indentures generally going forward and what similar themes are present throughout all the indentures at the Sutro Library?

I found this work extremely fascinating for several reasons. One, I learned about how legalities were performed in Europe in the 1700’s and the United States in the 1800’s, and these indentures are exemplary of this kind of knowledge. I also learned about the different ways that legalities were carried out, such as how documents were filled out, to what kinds of printing materials—either vellum or paper–they would use. Furthermore, I found it truly unique how stamps were used as proofs of legality— just as much as “witnesses” were–to really prove that these documents were in fact, real and not forged. Personally, I was pretty happy with the knowledge I have learned, and hope many get to come visit the indentures at Sutro Library as soon as possible!

[1]   For more information on George H. Williams, reference Wikipedia article,

[2]   For more detailed information on the Freedmen’s Savings Bank, reference Wikipedia article,

Tiny but Mighty

Back in late April of this year, the library staff at Newmarket Library, in Suffolk, England, returned to work after the building had been deep cleaned only to discover that the cleaning crew had reshelved the library’s books based on size. While James Powell of Suffolk Library, told the BBC that staff “saw the funny side” of the situation, it would still take a “bit of time” to correct. The story was shared on social media over 5,000 times and created a much-needed chuckle among most librarians, including staff here at the State Library.

Having worked in special collections for almost two decades, I had a different take on the story. In my mind, the cleaner’s actions were completely logical and in line with standard industry practice for materials found in our part of the library profession.  Unfortunately, the cleaners were working in a public library setting where such reorganization was not needed.

And the news story brought up a fundamental question: how does one arrange a library? One would think that the most-used books should be all placed together, like the modern-day reference collection. Other people would argue that the prettiest or most valuable books should all be in one place. Many would support storing similar formats together, so that all the DVDs are in one place for example.  While others advocate simply putting every item in Dewey Decimal System or Library of Congress call number order, like what you encounter in your public or university library. 

While all these approaches are correct and make sense, for a rare books/special collections library, shelving decisions are often driven by a range of factors, including fragility, rarity, size, format, ease of paging and protection of the item itself.  According to the Northeast Document Conservation Center, incorrectly storing rare materials can be just as damaging to the item as poor care and handling:

“Storage and handling methods have a direct impact on the useful life of collections and the accessibility of information. Damage to collections can be avoided by preventing overcrowded, careless, or haphazard storage conditions.”[i]

When I arrived at Sutro Library in early 2016, I noticed that the library’s established shelving practice for its rare books, archives, and ephemera was more in line with how public libraries shelve their circulating books rather than how special collections and archives store rare and unique items.

Almost all the rare items, with notable exceptions, were shelved without regard to any other criteria except call number order. This approach increased the likelihood of damage to many items of unusual formats (e.g. miniature and limp vellum bound books, ephemeral items, and manuscript materials):

“…books arranged strictly by LC call number would result in miniature books (under 2.5”) being placed between average-sized books, thus allowing a miniature to incur damage and possibly be pushed to the back of the shelf unseen. Pamphlets might sit between miniature books and face a similar situation.”[ii]

Shelving like-sized books and materials together is a common practice in special collections. For example, many libraries have a folio section where large books are stored together or map drawers where large, flat, single maps, blueprints, drawings and other oversize items are stored safely. The Northeast Document Conservation Center states, “As much as can be managed, shelve books by size since small volumes cannot adequately support larger ones.”[i] Following this practice prevents unnecessary damage and loss and is helpful to paging staff as well.

Since we already had an elephant folio and folio sections, we turned our attention to Sutro’s small books since they were frequently falling behind the gap between the shelving ranges. Additionally, they were hard to see and account for when reshelving a bigger book next to it.  Thus, in the fall of 2016, we made the decision to create a safe environment for our small books, and it would be the first step in bringing the Sutro Library’s shelving practices for rare materials back in line with professional standards.[ii]  We created a Tiny Town.

After: the same book safely lives among its peers in Tiny Town.

But first, we needed to establish some criteria. We researched the criteria other libraries used to classify their books as miniature or tiny. The National Library of Scotland for example, defined miniature books as, “by the generally accepted definition, a miniature book is one whose height and width do not exceed three inches, that is 7.5cm.”[iii] According to the Miniature Book Society, a miniature book in the United States is usually no more than three inches in height, width, or thickness. Outside of the United States, however, books up to four inches are often considered miniature.[iv]

When staff reviewed this information to see if it would help determine the project’s criteria, the 7.5 cm (three to four inches) height requirement for true miniature books would not achieve our primary goal of material safety. Thus, the staff made the decision to set the height limit for Sutro books at 12 cm (4.72 inches) but after a month staff soon realized that there were still too many books left behind in the stacks that needed protecting. The height limit was revised again and set at 13.99 cm (or 5.507 inches), which is where it remains today.

Next, we needed a location. Ever since the Sutro Library’s relocation into its current space in 2012, there has been an empty wall of shelves that would fit our needs perfectly. Additional shelves stored in Sacramento were brought back to San Francisco in early January 2017.

Additional shelves were brought in from Sacramento to create the new home for our tiny books.

Our former LTA, Daisy Ho, put the additional shelving in place, and she and a team of volunteers pulled all the books in the vault that were 13.99 cm and below, regardless of collection provenance.  Tiny Town rapidly took shape. By the end of May 2017, Tiny Town was complete, and a celebratory banner was hung at the entrance of the town.

Daisy Ho, our former Library Technical Assistant, stands in the completed Tiny Town.

The next stage of the project required us to make sure each book’s new location was recorded in the catalog. From May 2017 to September 2019, with the help of volunteer Isabel Breskin, Sutro Library librarians (first Colyn Wohlmut, then Jose Guerrero) worked on changing each book’s location.  Isabel handwrote in pencil a “[t]” on the book and on the book’s paper call slip, so that the book would always be returned to Tiny Town if it was paged. Additionally, items were reviewed for future conservation treatment if needed.

In total, 2,871 items were recorded as having been handled.

Adolph Sutro stands in Tiny Town reading one of his tiny books.

The next steps in our project surround activities that are housekeeping in nature. We need to conduct a shelf read to make sure all the books are in call number order, add barcodes to books that need them and then eventually convert the Dewey call number books into Library of Congress call number schema. The last step will take a few years to complete, but at least we know that our tiny books are safe in their new home. I would like to thank each person involved in this project, most especially Colyn Wohlmut, Jose Guerrero, Daisy Ho, and Isabel Breskin.

This post is by Mattie Taormina, Director, Sutro Library, with photographs provided by Sutro Library staff.

[i] Accessed May 18, 2020.

[iii] .” Accessed May 12, 2020.

[iv] Accessed May 11, 2020.

[i] Accessed May 12, 2020

[ii] Herlocker, p. 72

Uncovering a Map Mystery

[The following entry is from guest blogger and SF State University undergraduate, Patricia Tomita, who completed a short research assignment at the Sutro Library in Spring 2020. She supplied all of the text and images that follow.]

When reading history, a source from the past is like a time machine adventure. Thinking to yourself, “I know this story,” and then discovering something else entirely. When analyzing the map inside late 15th-century Dutch book, De Nieuwe en onbekend Weereld: of Beschryving van America en ‘t Zuid-Land, Sutro Library Archivist Mattie and I unknowingly uncovered a mystery about the map’s design. This blog post will introduce the questions we discovered regarding the language(s) of the map as well as analyze the engraved art. More profoundly, we will question the authenticity of the book to its time based on identifying the varying characteristics of the Sutro Library’s copy to other representations of the same map.

Close up of the map’s cartouche.

At first sight, this map depicts what Dutch cartographer Jacob Meurs, believed the appearance and geography of the American continents looked like. The first identifier, or title, of the map was in Latin, “Totus Americae Descriptio.”  We wondered why Latin was used—was it due to the still widespread knowledge of Catholicism and Latin in Europe? However, this theory did not explain the polylingual nature of the map which included languages such as Spanish, English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch. The polylingual map suggests that Meurs was versed in many European languages, but also that he changed the map’s language to reflect where that language was spoken geographically.

California seen as an island.

Another interesting feature of this map is that it presents California as an island.  According to Stanford University Libraries’ online exhibit, California as an Island in Maps , California was illustrated as an island from as early as 1510, as seen in “Las Sergas de Esplandian,” published that year by cartographer, Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo. “This rendering, coming from Montalvo’s imagination, became firmly embedded on maps,” and continued to be illustrated as such throughout the 17th and 18th centuries until the “blunder” was exposed in “a Passage by Land to California” by Father Eusebio Kino, an Italian Jesuit, cartographer, and explorer. The California Island cartography blunder became a phenomenon that “defied the science of mapping.”  The closest European power to California was the Spanish Colonies – I question if California was depicted as an island an attempt to allude to a potential area of colonization or achieve a political agenda. Stanford Libraries’ online exhibit includes several maps with the California Island blunder[1]: French “Planisphere Representant Toute L’etendue Du Monde”[2] by Louis Renard engraved in 1715, Latin “Nova Orbis Terraquei Tabula Accuratissime Delineate” [3] by Aa Pierre Vander (of German descent) in 1713, and “Novissima Totius Orbis Tabula” [4] by Carel Allard (of Dutch descent) in 1683. Maps, as we have discovered throughout history, are not just used for navigation, but as an explanation of global political power and prestige.

Hand-colored map featuring Poseidon in the upper left and cartouche at the bottom (this image is not from the State Library’s collections)

Returning to the Dutch map at the State Library, there is a cartouche engraving of Native Indians and colonists in the bottom left corner of the map. In this image (shown above), the centerpiece is a Native Indian woman who is pictured naked – sexualizing of Native women as seductive and temptations of sin were consistent throughout European art of the time. The snake sitting next to her in the cartouche, is often a symbol of temptation in the Christian faith. Europeans pursued colonization as a means of Christian evangelical missions for saving the “uncivilized man.” The cartouche’s other elements depict native men as primitive characters (seen on the left) when juxtaposed against their European counterparts (seen on the right) who are collecting goods and staking their claim on the land.

Coat of Arms for Sir Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Earl of Shaftsbury

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this map is upper left-hand side. In the original Dutch, first edition of this book there is a cartouche at the top left corner featuring Poseidon, the Greek god of the Sea accompanied by mythological sea creatures, angels, and goddesses.  But oddly, we discovered that other copies of this exact book did not contain the Poseidon cartouche in the upper left-hand corner. In fact, we consulted the State Library’s English translation of this book and discovered an entirely different image in the upper left hand corner: the coat of arms for Sir Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Earl of Shaftsbury.  Nevertheless, we continued to search for a copy of the map with the Poseidon cartouche, and came across a German copy of the book that included the map with colored aspects to the entire map.[5]

Why are there two different versions of this map in the different translations of this published book? One reason for the English map cartouche being different could be that Sir Anthony Ashley-Cooper could have been a financial contributor to English voyages to the New World or to the printing of the book. Another theory we considered is that the original first edition Dutch book held at the State Library does not hold the original map that was supposed to accompany the book. The research that led to the development of this postulation begins with finding that the only other copy with the same map featuring Poseidon was inside a German copy of the book. Additionally, the State Library’s map’s paper is different from the rest of the pages of the Dutch first edition book. These aspects suggest the map was inserted into the book at a later date, thus introducing the question of why and who had tampered with the book? Was it bought this way? I asked about a possible paper trail we could follow to gather more evidence to our theory – but there was none since the book came to the Library long ago.

There are more questions than answers about this map, more theories, and discoveries to be made about how maps skewed and bent the European perspective of the Americas. I hope to continue my research with the Sutro Library and dig deeper into this mystery.

Works Cited

[1] Stanford University Libraries,


[3] Nova orbis terraquei tabula accuratissime delineate,

[4] Novissima totius Orbis tabula,

[5] 1671 Jacob Van Meurs Rare Original Antique Map of America – Island of California