SAN DIEGO — Among the old books and papers stored in the San Diego Historical Society's archives in Balboa Park, Sylvia Arden has become acquainted with two women who are long dead.
But this should come as no surprise. Arden has spent more than 20 years cataloguing, leafing through and simply walking around in the archives. There is an immense amount of history stored there; it would be impossible not to be touched by some of it.
"You become very fond of certain people," said Arden--even when, as in this case, they exist only in 100-year-old diaries and photographs.
Arden is head librarian for the historical society's collections of books, maps, public records and other documents. She has worked in those collections since 1961, and her knowledge of them is encyclopedic.
Researchers at the library are often surprised to discover that this tiny, immaculately dressed woman, whose energy is in inverse proportion to her size, apparently knows where to find the answers to their inquiries without consulting any reference guide.
Interested in the dimensions of San Diego schoolrooms in 1863? Arden will direct you to the Public School Teacher's Report for that year. Want to know if there was a local chapter of the American Guild of Organists? She'll bring you the group's minutes. Anything on Wyatt Earp's stay in San Diego during the 1880s? Arden will ask you to be more specific; she knows there are several index cards full of material.
When told that she seems to carry a comprehensive index to the archives in her head, Arden blushed and laughed. "Well, I've been here so long--you accumulate a lot of knowledge almost without even realizing it," she said.
Richard Esparza, executive director of the historical society, said that Arden has had a "tremendous impact" on the library.
"Much of the collection predates Sylvia," he said, "but over the last 20 years, it's largely through her efforts that the collection has been (organized) and made available to the public."
For someone who never had formal training in library science, Arden takes to it like a duck to quacking. She obtained a bachelor's degree in business administration from Hunter College in New York, eventually moved to San Diego from the Los Angeles area in 1961, and soon had a part-time job indexing the historical society's collection of books and manuscripts for 75 cents an hour. It was the first library work she had ever done.
At that time, the collections were housed in a dark, cramped room in the Serra Museum in Presidio Park, Arden said: "It was a very small place, with one desk that could accommodate six or seven people. But there weren't a lot of people using the library then."
Throughout the 1960s and '70s, the society's library grew, and so did the number of people using it. Finally, after years of storing valuable books and other documents in several different locations, the society in November, 1984, moved into larger space in the basement of the Casa de Balboa in Balboa Park. Arden, who became the society's head librarian in 1977, said that the size and amenities of the new location still seem "like a miracle."
Roughly 10 times the size of the old room in the Serra Museum, the new library can seat 60 people--"comfortably," Arden said. Its broad wooden tables allow researchers to spread out notes and papers as they work.
Tanks in the ceiling contain halon, a nontoxic gas that would be released automatically during a fire, smothering the flames without damaging documents the way water from sprinklers would. Temperature and humidity controls will be installed when the Casa de Balboa's heating and air-conditioning systems are completed this year.
Meanwhile, under Arden's direction, all documents are stored in acid-free paper folders and boxes to prevent them from staining. Many are also covered with thin sheets of plastic to keep them from deteriorating in the hands of researchers.
"The early documents are the most fragile," Arden said. "No one could touch them if they weren't protected.
"The material in this archive covers everything from the earliest Spanish period up to current time. And we have a lot of things on the Indians. There isn't a subject that isn't covered--maritime history, cultural activity, sports, transportation, business, horticulture. . . . Everything that is a part of San Diego's history, there would be material here on it."
Although the collection focuses on San Diego County, documents pertaining to nearby areas, such as Baja California and the Colorado River, are also collected, indexed and stored by Arden and her staff of 20 volunteers.
There are 3,000 books, more than 500 manuscript collections (each consisting of one or two boxes full of letters and papers), and shelf after shelf of old newspapers and city and county government records. There are also about 1,400 maps, including the earliest street map of San Diego, drawn in 1849.