Arts Listings

Exhibit, Book Capture 100 Years of the Bancroft

By Dorothy Bryant, Special to the Planet
Friday November 10, 2006

“I did not stop to consider, I did not care, whether the book was of any value or not; it was easier and cheaper to buy it than to spend time in examining its value. The most worthless trash may prove some fact wherein the best book is deficient, and this makes the trash valuable.”  


That was the attitude of H. H. Bancroft (1832-1918) in 1860, when he began collecting and storing California “stuff”: books and newspapers, business directories, account books, handbills, ships logs, train tickets, letters written by the famous and the obscure. When written records were lacking he took oral histories that he called “dictations.” By 1870, 16,000 volumes of materials were housed in a building on Valencia Street in San Francisco. He expanded his search to the southwest and Mexico, then East and to Europe—wherever colonial lines of the Americas led. 

By the time of the 1906 quake Bancroft had completed negotiations to sell this motley, unorganized mountain of material to the University of California. Fortunately, the Valencia Street building came through the quake undamaged, and the university quickly moved everything to the Berkeley campus, where graduate students began the never-ending work of sorting and classifying its materials to make them accessible. In later years the University Archives and the Regional Oral History Office came under the Bancroft’s wing. In 1970, Bancroft absorbed the Rare Books Department of the UC Library, “expanding its reach to include the entire sweep of Western civilization,” and in 1972 the History of Science and Technology Program further broadened its view. Meanwhile, valuable gifts were coming from all over the world, as respect for this collection of “stuff” grew. The advent of the internet and on-line access in the 1990s continues to bring new possibilities and challenges. But the philosophy of Bancroft remains the same: collect everything and anything within the defined collecting areas, and let future generations interpret what it all says about us.  

This story and more is contained in a well-designed and readable, large-format book published in celebration of the centenary of Bancroft: Exploring the Bancroft Library, edited by Charles B. Faulhaber, Director of the Bancroft, and Stephen Vincent, poet and essayist. The book manages to divide the vast holdings of the Bancroft into a manageable few categories of collections, research programs, technical services, and outreach, accompanied by brief essays by historians connected to Bancroft in one way or another, and by scores of illustrations. (The 100th birthday of the The Bancroft Library comes during an extensive enlarging, renovating, retrofitting construction project to be completed in 2008. Until then, scholars may visit the temporary headquarters of the Bancroft at 2121 Allston, most of its collection in storage.) 

Anyone age eighteen (sooner, with a high school diploma) or older can use the Bancroft. Security measures make you feel kind of important: surrender bags, purses, pens, backpacks (you get a locker for a quarter, refundable when you leave); provide two IDs, one with photo; take a pencil and paper provided at the desk, and you’re in. I’ve done minor research for my writing: old photos of the Santa Clara Valley, or of old Californios, or oral histories by California Indians before 1900, or Japanese Americans after the World War II internment. Usually I ended up spending an extra two hours getting sidetracked into something irresistible, like the oral history of one of my (and everyone else’s) heroes, Walter Haas (Levi-Strauss). 

I asked Deputy Director Peter Hanff about unusual researchers. He recalled one “very old, very large, very addled” lady who came repeatedly, always calling herself by a different name, Washington one time, Lincoln the next. She was delving into old Spanish land grants, which, under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, were still technically valid (with daunting documentation and court action). “One day two federal agents appeared with some questions on the same subject. I mentioned this lady to them. They smiled and said they knew her. One of them said, ‘I bet you thought she was just some eccentric character haunting the Bancroft, but she actually is part of the family with a credible claim to the land under the Oakland Airport.’” 

While I’m sitting in Bancroft, examining the papers of some California writer, the people sitting nearby may be scholars, not only from the university, but from Germany, the Netherlands, Egypt, or Japan. Collected at the Bancroft are original Rube Goldberg cartoons and a fragment of a Sophocles play on papyrus—and everything imaginable and unimaginable in between: 600,000 volumes, 60,000,000 manuscript pieces, 43,000 microforms, 23,000 maps, 2,800,000 pictures and photos, 2,000 oral histories, many on video as well as in print.  

Samples of these images—people, landscapes, designs, ancient book pages, maps, letters—appear on almost every page of Exploring the Bancroft Library. (A personal discovery: I knew Yoshiko Uchida and had read her books, but I had never seen her watercolor of the internment camp at Topaz, Utah (page 37). 

When I mentioned this to Peter Hanff, I triggered another memory. In 1987 Peter was asked to arrange the first “ethnic” exhibit for the Bancroft Library Gallery, on Japanese and Chinese in California. “I said, well, I’ll have to borrow some stuff,” which was against Bancroft policy in those days. Peter had to defend his plan to borrow items to exhibit. “It wasn’t hard. All I had to do was to cite the early historical material we had, all written by white people—newspapers, handbills, cartoons about ‘orientals.’ It would have been an exhibit of white racism. I got an introduction to Seizo Oka, then the unofficial historian of Japan Town, and Tom Chinn, authority on Chinese culture in America. Brilliant men, they generously provided wonderful things. I learned a lot from them, and so did everyone who saw the exhibit.” 

Eight years ago Peter began teaching a research workshop with no pre-requisites, one of the special courses where lower division UC students are exposed to senior faculty in research instead of a T. A. “The assignment is to pick a subject, do research only in primary sources, then do an oral report to the group. So off they go to Bancroft, and they come back with a report—well, I still remember the look of wonder on the boy who stood in front of the group and said, ‘I held it in my hand! A letter by Albert Einstein!’ He had been bitten. No one will ever convince him that research is dry, dusty, dispassionate work.” 

If the illustrations and lists in the book whet your appetite for the real thing, trek up to the UC Museum, where, all this year (closing December 3), Gallery 4 is showing hundreds of acquisitions of the Bancroft: Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Meriwether Lewis, suggesting the exploration that became the Lewis and Clark expedition; the beribboned army jacket of “General-Waste-More-Land” worn in 1967 by Thomas Michael Dunphy to protest the Vietnam War; the astonishing 16th century Codex Fernandez Leal, a pictographic scroll illustrating the lineage of Cuicatec rulers in Oaxaca; a fragment of the Iliad in Greek on 2nd century A.D. papyrus; a 1906 painting by Theodore Wores— spectral ruins of San Francisco with a few gleaming white flowers sprouting in the foreground. Or watch a video of a recent oral history session. (A welcome feature—no hard-to-read printed captions on the walls or the sides of display cases. You can pick up a small catalog with concise descriptions of all 353 items, and you even get to keep it.) 

Then you can stop at the Museum Bookstore—or any local bookstore—and buy a copy ofExploring the Bancroft Library. (There’s at least one more chance to hear and question the editors at Book Passage in Corte Madera, December 6 at 7 p.m.) 

This is what a coffee table book ought to be, full of surprises for people (even librarians) who thought they knew what The Bancroft Library has and does. If I had a teenager in the house, I’d want to have the book lying around so s/he could dip into it now and then, absorbing some idea of what there is to know from archived “stuff.” And some time after the renovated Bancroft re-opens, and s/he turns eighteen, s/he’ll probably be waiting at the door, ready to surrender pen and backpack, and to enter an unimaginably larger world. 




Ira Nowinski’s San Francisco 

The Berkeley Art Musuem will host its final program commemorating the Bancroft Library’s centennial exhibition on Sunday, Dec. 3 at 3 p.m., the day the exhibit closes. 

Ira Nowinski has been photographing the people of San Francisco—opera divas, tenant organizers, North Beach poets—since 1970, making work that speaks eloquently of dignity, courage, and everyday life. 

BAM will celebrate his humanist photography and the latest publishing collaboration between the Bancroft and Heyday Books, Nowinski’s San Francisco: Poets, Politics, and Divas. 

Nowinski will give a brief visual presentation in the Museum Theater orienting the audience to his work while essayist Rebecca Solnit shares her thoughts on the cultural possibilities expressed in his images. 

Jack von Euw, the Bancroft’s curator of pictorial collections, will place Nowinski’s photographs in the context of the library’s holdings. Jack Hirschman, San Francisco’s prolific poet laureate, offers reflections on the city from his years of portraying it in words. Heyday Books publisher Malcolm Margolin will moderate the discussion. 

Seating is limited at the panel; first come, first served. A book-signing with the panelists will follow the program.  



Image: Book Cover:  



Edited by Charles B. Faulhaber and Stephen Vincent.  

Bancroft Library/ Signature Books.