When I read Raymond H. Clary’s two fine books entitled “The Making of Golden Gate Park,” (the first covering up to 1906, the second to 1950), I couldn’t help but seethe along with Mr. Clary over the continuing depredations to what San Francisco used to call “its most precious possession.” Dreaded philanthropists have always plagued the park with “gifts” in the form of buildings and monuments and museums and clubhouses (and now artificial turf soccer fields), replacing as much quiet nature as they can. Clary fantasized about having the power to remove every structure: “If one could do that, there would still be a woodland park. But if one were to remove every tree, shrub, blade of grass and body of water, it would be a desolate place, even with the highly touted ‘culture centers’ that now disgrace Golden Gate Park.” (This was in 1987. Thankfully, Mr. Clary didn’t have to see the new de Young Museum go up.)
When I read Nicholson Baker’s book “Double Fold” in 2001, a similarly righteous anger and energy spark inside me. Mr. Baker, a novelist, detailed in the book how libraries “modernized” (and saved shelf space) by microfilming and then destroying original copies of books and historical newspapers. The colorful artwork of the New York World’s Sunday supplements were reduced to fuzzy black and gray on microfilm reels, while the originals were pulped or sold to be cut up by dealers of “What the front page was on your birthday” curios. David Gates, in a New York Times review, had similar feelings as me in reading the book: “I’d repeatedly scrawled ‘Whew!,’ ‘Yikes!’ and ‘Jesus!’ in the margins, sometimes two and three times a page.” Baker went so far as to purchase tons of bound newspapers when the British Library put them up for sale, having to rent a warehouse in New Hampshire for $26,000 a month to store them. (Finally, Duke University took them off his hands.)
So when I was at the San Francisco History Expo in March of this year I was jarred and delighted to see my good friends Ron Filion and Pamela Storm had on display a bound set of the San Francisco Call from the 1890s. The couple told me they had not just the one bound book of old newsprint—which was an impressive thirty inches long by twenty-three inches wide by two inches deep—but twenty-two equally massive volumes back at home, salvaged from a culling at the San Francisco Public Library years before.
There’s great wonder in seeing original versions of these old newspapers, having the tactile experience of feeling and seeing paper, of being able to easily turn and riffle through an edition, scan quickly over a page to pick out items, drink in the color washes on Sunday art pages. I found an 1899 article I had used in writing my book on Carville-by-the-Sea, but instead of the murky shades that I had viewed on microfilm—almost unidentifiable as illustrations—now I could see real photographs and pick out specific houses.
Ron and Pamela, who have over the years created one of the region’s great genealogy sites at sfgenealogy.com, obviously felt the same way about these old marvels as I did. Seeing my enthusiasm, they asked if the Western Neighborhoods Project would be interested in being the new caretakers of these ephemeral beauties. The collection took up a lot of space in their home, and both were willing to let it go to new guardians.
Nicholson Baker had been one of my heroes, and if he could take on several thousand volumes, we could take twenty-three. As I try to write grant applications, plan the next member walk, update our Facebook page, and transition our nonprofit’s government-assigned DUNS number to a new online system (don’t ask), the dusty tomes tempt me daily to immerse myself in the news of San Francisco from the nineteenth century. It requires clearing off a lot of desk space to open one pulpy volume of the Call or the San Francisco Bulletin (which has fewer graphics, but is much more manageable in size.)
They do take up a lot of room, fill the air with dust when browsed, need extremely delicate handling (book repair classes in my future?), and are perhaps fairly useless as other copies are digitized in full resolution for the Web (browse and search the Call up to the 1910s on the Library of Congress site). But they are such a great delight.
Our great thanks to Ron and Pamela for their generosity, and to everyone else out there who still loves paper.