California Academy of Sciences library

This semester, I had the chance to visit the California Academy of Sciences’ library and talk with one of the archivists about her work and the Academy’s collections.  I had been wanting to go to visit the Academy for my special libraries project, so combining it with a class assignment was a no brainer.  She was great to speak with and I learned a lot about the Academy’s library and archives, plus the archival field.  And even though she showed me the library and archives stacks, I also got to tag along on a tour, where she and the other archivists pulled out some fun highlights from the archives.  Most of the info I gathered for this post is about the archives.


The Academy is in Golden Gate Park and was founded in 1853.  The library has seven staff, two of whom are archivists.  The archives’ scope is on the records of the Academy, and the science of the American West and Pacific Rim.  The library and archives are open to staff and the public by appointment.  It’s mostly research materials, but also some personal items of those connected to the Academy.  They lost a lot of items in the 1906 earthquake, so the most of the collection starts around this time.  The majority of the records are manuscripts and photographs, along with paintings and illustrations and film reels.


The library and archives have closed stacks, and use a compact shelving system. The library’s collection comprises most of the stacks.  Rare books are under the library’s collections.

Glass lantern slides:


Most of the archival collection is unprocessed, but the archivists think of this as a fun challenge.  They’re slowly going through each box to see what it contains, what needs to be preserved, and what other steps may need to be taken.  In one box, the archivist found a box of pieces of metal and bullets.  Turns out they were a musketball and rifle shells and pieces of cable.

One critical area of items needing preservation is audiovisual materials.  These have nitrate, which is incendiary and causing the older materials to deteriorate.  You can smell the scent of vinegar when walking through the stacks.  On the day I visited, the archivist had found a box of film rolls that were decaying, several to the point of being unsalvageable.

academy 12

At the same time, the archives continues to receive new materials. Volunteers help with basic duties like rehousing items into archival storage materials.

This is the walking stick of one of the founders of the Academy. The archives also has some notebooks from the original meeting of the founding of the museum.  Sorry it’s slightly blurry.  I had a hard time getting pictures.

academy 6 stick

This is the field hat of a researcher and his wife from one of the first trips to the Galapagos Islands (sorry, didn’t get his name).  The Academy has some of the earliest film and photos ever taken in the Galapagos.

academy 4 hat

And I can’t be absolutely positive because I missed some info, but I think this object is somehow related to filming in the Galapagos Islands.

academy 5

This odd item is called White’s Physiological Manikin by Frank H. Hamilton, M.D. and James T. White & Co.  It is a life-sized “manikin” of a man, with flaps representing different organs and body parts that lift up.  It took two archivists to open it all up.

manikin 1

manikin 2

manikin 3

manikin 4

This crazy contraption is a gnathodynomometer, which measured the biting force of Galapagos finches.  By squeezing them.  Yes.

academy 11

The archives has a number of cool projects going on. One is called Connecting Content, and it’s basically a project where all of the Academy’s field notes and specimens are being digitized in collaboration with premier institutions like the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History.  As they are digitized, they’re being entered into the library’s catalog and other resources so that the institutions can share information.                   

Another cool project is the development of a mobile app where users can geolocate where they are and the app will pull up botanical collections to tell you what grew there in the past, and you can report if the plants still exist in the area.

The archives are also digitizing the Academy’s tv show from the 1950s, called Science in Action.  The show was the first to be syndicated.  The reels were found in the basement!  Of the 630 episodes total, they have 360 episodes and 41 have been digitized.  Some are on YouTube and the Internet Archive.  Here’s a view of all of the film reels, plus other films.

academy 7 reels

Very fun collection.  I’ll have to go back to talk to one of the librarians as well.

• Number of staff – 7 total
• Number of visitors last year – The archives had 200 outside researchers last year
• Number of books – Couldn’t find this info
• Number of periodicals – Couldn’t find this info
• Number of databases – 6 subscription based databases
• Number of computers for patron use – 0
• Reference methods – In person, by phone, and email
• Number of reference questions last year – Wasn’t able to get this info, but there were 200 outside researchers last year
• Target users – Academy staff, volunteers, students, and the public
• Circulation – Non-circulating
• Special collections – Manzanita Image Project, a lot of resources on the Galapagos Islands, Science in Action tv show
• Public Wi-Fi – None, only open to the public by appointment


One thought on “California Academy of Sciences library

  1. Pingback: 2014 in review | exbibliolibris

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