October 8, 2007
Dearest San Francisco History Center,
I have longed to write to you for so long, but it has taken me months to work up the nerve.
If only you could appreciate how wonderful you are. Hereâ€™s what you reveal about yourself on the official website, so typically demure and self-effacing:
The Daniel E. Koshland San Francisco History Center contains a research collection of books, newspapers and magazines, photographs, maps, posters, archives and manuscript collections, and ephemera, documenting all aspects of San Francisco life and history. The Center is also the official archives for the City and County of San Francisco.
Coyly, you neglect to tell the world what real treasures await inside the walls of your sixth floor Civic Center aerie. Whether the approaching suitor is a scholar or just a Curious George citizen, you, dear History Center, already know the answers to their questions.
A wealth of primary and secondary sources, of course, available in formats ranging from crumbling, yellowed paper to digital audio/visual files. More than 20,000 books. Almost a thousand different periodicals, many dating all the way back to the wild 1850s. Books of maps. References. Research guidelines, and so much more. And have I mentioned the amazing riches of the photo collection? And youâ€™ve generously made most of this trove searchable online!
But for my money, your most beguiling charms are not available by computer at all â€” I speak of the manila folders hidden in some mysterious chamber behind the counter. No matter the nature of my search — whether it involve some half-forgotten citizen, a particular neighborhood, an institution or even a park, there is a folder back there in which lies a collection of related ephemera, carefully clipped and filed away for many decades.
I hold my breath whenever I ask for one of these folders â€” who knows you will have tucked away inside? A stack of fading telegrams? The carbon copy of a 1920s-era memorandum to the mayor? A schoolgirlâ€™s dissertation on the artistic holdings of a museum? Maps, photos, and the usual stacks of periodical clippings usually round out the offering.
But just as valuable as the information are the warm, knowledgeable people behind your counters. Their attitude is almost shockingly helpful â€” these are genuinely passionate San Franciscophiles who answer questions and offer suggestions with (perhaps most bizarrely, given the attitudes of most of their civic compatriots) enthusiasm and verve!
Iâ€™m afraid youâ€™re not the best at promoting yourself, oh sweet SFHC, or the delightful services that you offer. Perhaps due to the vast resources of information within your purview, you assume that a desiring patron will simply ask. But we, the simple citizens of the city donâ€™t always know what is there for the asking! For example; a five minute conversation this weekend revealed the simple truth that virtually all of the San Francisco Public Libraryâ€™s databases are available not just from the library itself, but from any computer in the world. (Iâ€™m especially enamoured of the New York Times Historical, going back to 1851.) All one needs is a library cardâ€¦ which is, of course, absolutely free.
Dearest, most wondrous History Center, I hope you will accept this short missive as proof of the devotion of San Franciscoâ€™s citizenry, and proudly continue your mission as the memory bank of the greatest city on earth.
With great affection and regard, your humble servant,