The Sacramento Room and Center for Sacramento History

Posted on April 1, 2010 – 1:27 AM | by OldManFoster
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By James W. Cameron  photos by Scott Duncan

Archives and libraries have often been regarded as musty vessels of dreariness, replete with pinch-faced attendants who either shush visitors speaking in normal voices or seem unable to direct them anywhere but the rest rooms.  Not so in Sacramento where there are a host of these institutions that provide stimulating and exciting material and guidance to both residents and visitors alike. Among them are the Center for Sacramento History and the Sacramento Room of the Central Library. Both play an integral role for researchers seeking to understand the Capitol City’s place in the current and past history of California.

The atmosphere found at the Sacramento Room of the Central Library with its row upon row of reference materials can be intimidating to the casual visitor but it represents a prize package to researchers, teachers and students as well as writers, policy makers and citizens interested in learning about their city.  Over 21,000 printed items made up of rare books, maps and photographs of Sacramento city and county history, books by local authors, California profiles and fine press and book arts reside on the building’s second floor.

Tom Tolley, a Library Technician and veteran of the Sacramento Library for the past 25 years, was there at the beginning. “We began to put the collection together in 1995 under the direction of Clare Ellis, now retired, by buying from book dealers and shops and we’ve preserved the past and present and made them available and useful to people who are interested in them for many different reasons.”

A climate-controlled archive holds rare materials which require special care, some of them examples of hand lettered manuscript pages dating back a thousand years and prints and original sketches by well known local artists as well as rare magazines and select illustrations.  A history collection dates back to a public record book of 1857 and contains the signatures of most of the city’s most notable citizens.

Exhibit cases offer timely displays containing information about the Sacramento Room’s various collections aimed at inspiring research efforts. The entire collection of photos, post cards and local menus is being digitized in high resolution and soon will be available on the internet.

Tolley’s enthusiasm for the Sacramento Room is infectious, and he has many fond memories of his work with researchers.  “I’ve personally had a lot of very rewarding experiences with people who were here on quests of various kinds.  A woman came in who had worked here in 1944.  I was able to introduce her to another woman who was her page and is still here.”  But, he says, his favorite reactions are from the kids.  “I show them one old book from 1490 that has old worm holes in it, and they’re absolutely thrilled.  It’s great to see their wonder and delight.”

While the Sacramento Room is a repository for some Sacramento City and County records, the Center for Sacramento History performs a like archival service for printed materials about the city and county.  “CSH’s origins go back to December of 1953 when the Sacramento City Council organized the Historic Landmarks Commission,” explained Dylan McDonald, the Center’s Manuscripts Archivist. McDonald came to CSH from Boise, Idaho, where he worked for the Idaho State Historical Society. Like the historical society, CSH is a “total archive,” meaning it collects both governmental records as well as manuscripts and personal papers. “It was a good fit for me,” he says. CSH is presided over by Patricia Johnson, Chief Archivist, whose knowledge of the Center’s archives has led her to be described by contemporaries as “a human computer.”

The collections, which primarily date from 1849 into the 2000s, are housed in two facilities totaling 34,000 square feet. It is the largest repository of local history on the West Coast. Included among its possessions are manuscripts and photographs related to the development of the city and county as well as the Sacramento Bee photo lab, Eleanor McClatchy’s private collection of photos and books, and a number of documents from the Leland Stanford collection.

CSH is open to the public, but materials are only accessed upon request and are utilized under the supervision of staff members who are available to help with research efforts.

Rebecca Crowther, an Archivist for the Center, explained their requirements. “We only charge for reproduction services and rights.  No fees are charged for on-site users who conduct research.  We require photo identification and users register at the reference desk.  It’s a painless process.”

Dorothea Puente's shovel.

Dorothea Puente's shovel.

Family history and documents relating to specific pieces of property in the county are the most common type of information researchers come looking for.  But that only scratches the surface, McDonald says.  “We help provide information to numerous users – historians, students, teachers, documentary film makers, lawyers, city and county staff, the local media, preservationists, railroad enthusiasts, realtors, environmental consultants, lobbyists, and the list goes on and on.”   Among the most notable visitors to CSH was filmmaker Ken Burns, who worked there while preparing his television series on World War II.

For the staff at both sites, the opportunity to help visitors bridge the void of time brings great reward.   McDonald calls helping researchers solve the mysteries that led them to call on CSH one of the most rewarding parts of his job. “You never really know who is going to be on the other end of the phone or come walking through the door with a question.”


828 K Street, 916-264-2700, Sun, Tues, Sat  1 – 5PM, Thurs  1 – 8PM


551 Sequoia Pacific Blvd,  916-264-7072, Weds  4 –7:45PM, Thurs, Fri – 8:15AM – Noon

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  1. One Response to “The Sacramento Room and Center for Sacramento History”

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    By James Fannin on Feb 24, 2012 | Reply

    I am a local small business owner of a full service Graphic Design company. I am looking for some historical venues to offer my services to, as I am a long time history enthusiast. Any direction of where to look would be appreciated.


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