A little while back, I had the opportunity to take a tour of the Sutro Library in San Francisco. This is one of my most favoritest libraries evah, so I jumped at the chance to get a behind the scenes look. The library is part of the California State Library system and has one of the largest genealogy collections west of Salt Lake City, which is how I discovered it. However, it wasn’t until more recently that I learned of all the amazing other things hidden away in their collection. I thought they had a lot of goodies in the stacks, but there were even more in the archives.
I began visiting the library somewhere around 10 years ago to try to find the birth family of my grandfather, who gave him up for adoption with no info other than his parents’ names. Lo and behold, I broke the “brick wall” of this part of the family tree in a dark room of the library filled with microfilm machines and drawers full of census records. Ever since then, I’ve loved this place. Their resources are amazing. I’ve even found my mother in a Honolulu telephone book.
The library moved in 2012 to a new space on the San Francisco State University campus. Since that was the year I also began the MLIS program, I never had the chance to visit. I was happy to discover it was worth the wait. The space is of course much larger, but also brighter (no windows in the last place that I can remember) and felt more welcoming.
The Sutro Library collections come from Adolph Sutro, a former San Francisco mayor and apparently an extremely avid book collector who had the largest private library in the world at the time. Sutro felt that San Francisco was still pretty wild, as it wasn’t too long after the Gold Rush, and wanted to make the city more modern and cultured. His philosophy was to buy in bulk, even purchasing books that had been thrown in the trash. One such example is the library’s Mexicana collection, where Sutro bought the inventory of the largest book store in Mexico City, the Libreria Abadiano, yielding several thousand items pre-1900 and much more.
Unfortunately, Sutro died (1898) before the library he envisioned was built and the books were stored in two different locations. Even more unfortunately, the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed an astounding two-thirds of the books, yet 70,000 managed to survive. Sutro didn’t keep an inventory (!) so the library is not sure what did not survive the quake, but they do have some receipts and other things to help piece together the original collection.
The real excitement began when we went into the closed stacks, and a conference room where the librarian had already brought out special items for the tour.
I learned that these enormous books are called elephant folios
Bound issues of The Star
A mysterious miniature cuneiform tablet that they don’t know how got into the collection
Tlatelolco library, part of the Mexicana collection, from 1500s to 1700s
A Shakespeare first folio from 1623, one of only 233 in the world (all of the books from here down were already opened, so I couldn’t get any pics of the covers.)
A first edition of the King James Bible, 1611
“King Charles I, his speech made upon the scaffold”, 1649. This is the speech made before his execution.
This book from 1470 is the first printed book of music. I didn’t catch the name of it while I was there, but after exploring the library’s catalog, I believe this is the Constitutis, cuattentione dicende by Johannes Gerson.
A Japanese print
An illuminated book
The library is cataloged with both Library of Congress (LC) and Dewey Decimal, and they are slowly converting everything to LC.
Some of the other resources available are:
- A surname catalog (a bunch of people on the tour started checking to see if their surnames were in it!)
- A locality catalog
- 10,000 British pamphlets
- American pamphlets from the 1500s-1800s
- Works Progress Administration records
- Sutro Baths posters
- About 50 incunabula (pre-1500)
- 4,000 family histories
- Daughters of the American Revolution publications
- Italian manuscripts from the 15th to 17th centuries
The library is open Monday through Friday from 10 to 5. The library also offers email and online reference support. The staff has always been very helpful and friendly when I’ve asked questions.