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SHELF LIFE : The State Room

May 12, 1996|Dave Gardetta

For a long time, the basement of the Rosemead Library resembled a crypt for the county library system. Old books went there to die when there was no room for them on crowded shelves, the majority of the books city and county histories originally put together by boosters or local officials. The basement collection moldered and grew until the mid-1980s, when the county realized it had a body on its hands--the California corpus itself, now represented in about 15,000 volumes of state documents, newspapers, history and fiction. In 1988, the body was exhumed. Brought above ground and installed in its own room, it was awarded a librarian and finally a name--the Californiana Collection, possibly one of the largest assemblages of California literature in the world.

David Wysocki, the room's librarian, has a sometimes lonely job. Every year, 300,000 visitors use the Rosemead Library, but only an average of 10 a month sign the logbook to enter the Californiana room. "Mostly," says Wysocki, looking rather like a special-collections curator in a bow tie and pin-striped shirt, "we get people with obscure questions," interested in tracking down S.L. Pompey's "Extracts of Inyo County Wills, 1868-1900," or M. Nikolitch's 1906 "Sewerage Systems of Los Angeles and Sewage Irrigation in Southern California," or even--real summer reading!--W.H. Miller's "The Localization of Functions in the Pomona Area."

There is an Oct. 31, 1881, copy of the Bishop Creek Times in the collection, a Sept. 18, 1902, edition of the Azusa Pomotropic, and the front page of the Jan. 11, 1907, Los Angeles B'nai B'rith Messenger. Wysocki knows all their shelf numbers. In such close quarters, the low fever of the history buff becomes viral. "What I really want," says Wysocki, "is an L.A. County supervisor's road book published before 1920, a document that talked about the roads the county was building, why, where, and from whom the land was being bought."

Fifteen thousand books in a classroom-sized area is a crowd, and the collection's California theme often plays itself out in odd contrasts. "Psycho Squad," a nonfiction account of emergency mental-health care, can be found on the same shelf with "Mining in the Pacific States of North America"; "The Strange Case of Richard Nixon" lies near "The Wonder of the Sierra Nevada and the Coast Range" (1881). Dewey and the absent-minded professor seem to have collided in this room, and that accident, spelled out in books, has revealed the trace elements that characterize California: beautiful geography, natural disasters, crooked cops and pols, deug experimentation, film stars and an ever-present ocean.

The collection "is a little haphazard," Wysocki admits. With the county budget not what it once was, he knows the chance to fill the collection's gaps has faltered. (Gone are the afternoons when founding curator Sally Colby rubbed shoulders with antiquarian book dealers.) Still, Wysocki will soon have to choose from the growing field of O.J. studies--though he is uncertain which selections he will make. Until then, visitors will have to be content with L.J. Simpson's "Black Fire--A California Story" (1927) and Robert Campbell's "Juice" (1988), whose jacket reads:"...a down and dirty crime novel" concerning a "Brentwood hotshot" whose money tends to slip "up his wife's beautiful nose."

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