Arts Listings

Arts: UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library Stages Centennial Exhibit By STEVEN FINACOM Special to the Planet

Tuesday February 07, 2006

Although there are many indicators of prestige among modern educational institutions—from Nobel prizes to faculty ratings to research dollars and private donations—university libraries remain one of the enduring benchmarks of excellence in higher education. 

Among the many library gems at the University of California campus in Berkeley, the most unique and precious may be the Bancroft Library.  

It’s a great treasury of historical materials—from books to manuscripts, paintings, photographs, and ancient papyrus—a leading center of historical research, and a wellspring of numerous scholarly studies, books, and even novels. 

Founded privately by Hubert Howe Bancroft, a foresighted California pioneer, publisher, and collector, today’s public Bancroft Library dates its campus connections to 1906, the year it was brought to Berkeley.  

The official Centennial of the Bancroft is celebrated this week with a free public conference and exhibit opening at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum.  

The event runs from about 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. this Friday and Saturday. Some 15 talks and panel discussions are scheduled on topics relevant to Bancroft research and collections, including “Modern Literary Manuscripts,” “Nineteenth-Century California History,” “The Environmental Movement,” “Mark Twain and His Era,” “Biotechnology and the Biological Revolution” and “The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire.”  

Speakers and participants come from as far as the University of Leiden and as near as City Lights Bookstore, and include State Librarian Emeritus Kevin Starr, scientists Daniel Koshland, Jr. and John Heilbron, activists Kathleen Cleaver and Sylvia McLaughlin, and poets Robert Hass and Michael McClure.  

Central to the Bancroft are the amazing and eclectic collections of western history and documents collected in the 19th century by its namesake, who came to California in the Gold Rush and ultimately established the largest book and stationery firm west of the Mississippi. 

With profits from his business he got into the habit of collecting records and books and ended up publishing, with the help of a large research and editorial staff, nearly forty volumes of western history.  

Besides collecting existing written and published materials, he sent out researchers to interview early Californians—from Mexican-era officials, to American pioneers—and record their recollections in an early form of oral history. 

Wrapping up his own research activities in the 1890s he worked to find a permanent, secure, home for his collections, especially since his office building—although not the collection itself—had burned in 1886. 

As early as the 1870s the University of California had expressed interest in his library, but financial concerns and public criticisms had prevented a sale.  

As the 20th century began, acquisition efforts were renewed by two new University of California officials—President Benjamin Ide Wheeler and Professor of History Henry Morse Stephens—and by fall 1905, the deal was done.  

Bancroft sold his collection—appraised at more than $315,000—to the University for $250,000, and immediately donated $100,000 back to the institution.  

“The purchase of the Bancroft Library marks a great day in the history of the university,” a University Press release noted. “It marks the emergence of a real university of study and research out of the midst of the colleges of … teaching and training.” 

Then things nearly went up in smoke. Although a ceremonial transfer of the key to the collection took place in late November 1905, the documents were still in San Francisco in April 1906, when the great earthquake shook, and conflagration swept the city.  

For a time, “the University heads went through an anxious period, sadly contemplating … the default of the hopes to make the university a real institution of learning,” historian John Caughney wrote.  

But when the smoke cleared, the Bancroft collection had survived the earthquake and fire, almost alone among the great public and private libraries of San Francisco. This was due to the caution of Hubert Howe Bancroft who had installed his treasures somewhat outside the densely built-up districts in a strongly built, fireproof, structure on Valencia Street.  

Later in 1906 it was carted to Berkeley and its first campus home, the attic of California Hall. It would subsequently move to various floors of Doe Library. 

Although always stressed for funds, the collection grew through an active acquisitions program. Directors, curators, and staff were determined to make it a living collection by adding more material on western history as old materials became available through donation or purchase, and as new history was made. 

By 1946, the collection was three times bigger than it was in 1905, and a little over half a century ago the library moved to the new Annex building next to Doe Library and continued to grow. 

Today, the annex is temporarily closed as it undergoes a multi-million dollar seismic retrofit and interior reconstruction. Bancroft facilities including the Reading Room operate out of temporary quarters on Allston Way in downtown Berkeley, while most of the collections are stored in Richmond. 

In the 1970s and later the Bancroft was administratively united with several other special collections and library programs at the university. Rare books and manuscripts of all sorts, the ancient Egyptian Tebtunis Papyrus collection, the Regional Oral History Office, the University Archives, and the Mark Twain Papers, among others, all operate under its wing.  

Here’s the Bancroft by the numbers. Some 600,000 printed volumes and 60,000,000 pieces of manuscript occupy miles of shelving, along with 2,800,000 photographs and 23,000 maps.  

Operating with an annual budget of around $6 million (only about a third of it funded by the State of California), the Library sees more than 12,000 research visits a year and handles nearly 43,000 research and reference inquiries.  

All of the Bancroft collections are “non-circulating,” making the library’s reading room the sole public access point of the collection.  

Today, any individual with a serious research interest can go to the Bancroft, register, and call up and examine materials. 

When the Bancroft first moved to Berkeley, research access was more limited. A campus commission recommended that only graduate students at work on theses, and “qualified researchers” be allowed access. 

Other visitors “shall be courteously received and shown around the library by the assistant custodian, but shall not be permitted to use books or other historical materials,” the commission admonished. 

In the modern era, no visitors need fear being shunted off to the “assistant custodian.” Instead, they receive careful and expert assistance from a small corps of curators and reference staff adept at suggesting and finding the most obscure materials.  

I’ve been an occasional user of the Bancroft reading room, and have always been amazed at the immense scope of the research materials and the unexpected gems they contain. A small example; once, while researching the history of the University Art Museum, I opened a folder of dry administrative documents to find an original 1934 letter by Bernard Maybeck, commenting on the architecture and uses of a renovated campus building.  

For the next century the Bancroft will undoubtedly continue to accumulate and unfold treasures. In the meantime, now is a great time to get acquainted with the library through its centennial. 



A gallery talk at noon and an evening exhibit reception (6–8 p.m.) on Saturday help open the Centennial exhibit, “The Bancroft Library at 100.” It will remain on display through early December. 

Symposium events take place in the Berkeley Art Museum theater and Pacific Film Archive theater on Bancroft Way, near Bowditch Street. For more information see or call (510) 642-3781. The two-page program can be downloaded from the website. 

(The College of California, by the way, gave Bancroft Way its name in the 1860s before the University of California existed. It honors not Hubert Howe Bancroft but 19th century American historian George Bancroft.)