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A Treasure Trove of State History : California's Library, Started in 1850, Has 8 Million Items

August 28, 1986|WILLIAM S. MURPHY | Murphy is a Times photographer. and

SACRAMENTO — The date was Jan. 19, 1850 when a wagon arrived at a San Jose building, then serving as the Capitol where California's first elected Legislature had convened. The driver had followed a trail from Monterey carrying a small trunk filled with a hundred books consigned to Peter H. Burnett, who had been sworn in as the first civil governor of California.

The books were a gift from Col. John C. Fremont, the explorer who charted the trail to the Far West.

Fremont had learned that the Legislature was considering establishing an official library. Those volumes would be its first books. On April 9, 1850, the Legislature passed an act setting up the State Library, designating the secretary of state to be its librarian. At that time, the library's books were limited to the use of state governmental officers and members of the Legislature. In 1903, a revision of the law permitted the public to use the library.

Gary Strong, 42, has been state librarian since 1980. Seated at his desk, he opened one of Fremont's books. "Mostly they were about New York and the New England states," he said. "But it was a beginning. Today, our collection contains 8 million items and we add 100,000 more each year. They include fine books, maps, posters, periodicals, journals, photographs and even historical post cards. Much of the material comes from private gifts and bequests."

The California State Library's purpose is to meet the research needs of state government and of the general public. Any citizen can use its extensive resources either in Sacramento or through their local library's interlibrary loan service.

After the recent disastrous fire at the Los Angeles Central Library, Strong sent two members of his staff to determine how they could help. They were Gary F. Kurutz, director of special collections, and Tere Silva, who is preservation officer.

"Los Angeles lost its patent collection," Strong continued. "We have this on microfilm, and we can furnish them duplicates. Also, many periodicals in their collection were destroyed. These date back to the booster years when there were a number of publications promoting California as a place to live and work. We've duplicate copies of a number of them that we will be able to give Los Angeles."

The state library publishes a newsletter that is sent to about 1,600 libraries throughout the nation. In a recent one, they asked all libraries to search their stacks for duplicate volumes that could be offered to the Los Angeles Public Library.

To aid the Legislature, thousands of publications are on file that are primarily of interest to senators, assemblymen and other government agencies. One of the largest law libraries in the United States is housed in its building across the street from the State Capitol.

Established in 1903, the library's California section is one of the foremost regional history collections in the western United States. There are about 70,000 volumes on its shelves relating to California's geography, history and current conditions.

California's early history was well chronicled by foreign visitors such as British and American sea captains who arrived while the territory was under Spanish and later Mexican rule. Trappers began drifting across the Sierra during the early 1800s in search of beaver, and later came settlers who followed the long trail west in covered wagons. The great migration caused Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California, to declare on the eve of war with the United States:

"We find ourselves suddenly threatened by hordes of Yankee emigrants whose progress we cannot arrest."

The library also has collected novels with California as a setting or inspiration. Among the authors represented are Bret Harte, Samuel Clemens, Joaquin Miller, Jack London, John Steinbeck and Raymond Chandler.

First Newspaper Saved

Gary Kurutz, who is in charge of the California room, displayed some of the items that the library considers its most prized treasures. "We have copies of California's first newspaper," he said. "It was called the Californian, and the first issue was published in Monterey on Aug. 15, 1846. Its owners were Robert Semple and Walter Colton. We have a complete run of this newspaper. It was issued every Saturday and was printed in both English and Spanish.

"Newsprint was sometimes scarce and on occasion the editors printed several issues on cigar wrappers."

Semple moved the paper to the growing city of San Francisco in May, 1847, but a year later he was forced to suspend publication for six months. The cause was the Gold Rush. Semple announced that because everyone had gone off to the gold fields, there was no one left to read paper. He resumed publication that fall when he merged with San Francisco's first newspaper, the California Star.

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