Let the Records Show

By Mardon, Mark | Sierra, May-June 1992 | Go to article overview

Let the Records Show


Mardon, Mark, Sierra


In 1930 a Sierra Club committee was formed to aid in rescuing Club memorabilia and other historical materials from their "obscure and precarious existence in the attics and trunks of our widely scattered membership." Today the Sierra Club Archives reside within the Bancroft Library, on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. If this centennial issue of Sierra should pique your interest, it's there that you can most readily trace the Club's 100-year-long paper trail.

Be advised, though, that the Bancroft's Heller Reading Room is no place for casual browsing. Before entering, you must leave your coat, briefcase, and other extraneous items in an adjacent locker room, show the doorkeeper your I.D., and hand over your pens (only pencils or typewriters are permitted for notetaking). Finally, you will be waved through the plate-glass doors.

As in most libraries, you enter a hushed world--but here the documents you request require at least 24 hours to be brought from their temperature-controlled, fireproof storage vault. Around you, scholars pore over 4,000-year-old papyri, medieval manuscripts, the notebooks of Mark Twain, or leaflets from decades of social protest in California. Undergraduates and tenured professors alike cull obscure files, handling items delicately and solicitously, protective of the history they touch.

Of the Bancroft's 17,000 special collections, the Sierra Club Archives ranks among the largest--a veritable mountain of papers and photographs. It's also one of the best resources anywhere for investigating the environmental movement's history, according to Susan Schrepfer, author of The Fight to Save the Redwoods and a specialist in Sierra Club materials.

Schrepfer has been delving into the archives' holdings for some 20 years, since joining the Sierra Club History Committee, a volunteer panel of professional and amateur historians. One of her first projects was to visit the homes of long-time members to urge them to donate their worthy papers and old photos to the Bancroft. In the process she met people like James Rother of Berkeley, then, at 90, a Sierra Club member for 63 years. He and his wife had met Sierra Club founder John Muir on a Club outing in Yosemite in 1909, and Rother had a photograph of Muir regaling a group of members in Hetch Hetchy Valley (later inundated behind O'Shaughnessy Dam to provide San Francisco with drinking water).

That image now shares space with 44,500 others in the Sierra Club Archives. If you're looking for vintage shots of mountaineering women in bloomers, or of pack trains, blacksmiths, cliff dwellings, or mountain scenery, this is the place to come. The works of such eminent turn-of-the-century photographers as Joseph N. LeConte and Edward T. Parsons are here, as are later images by masters such as Ansel Adams (who recorded numerous Sierra Club outings beginning in the 1920s), Cedric Wright, and Philip Hyde. Less technically perfect but no less engaging are the lovingly assembled "High Trip" albums compiled by anonymous participants in the Club's annual outings between 1901 and the mid-1950s.

While the Club's photographic collection is impressive, it is dwarfed by the mass of written material (1,100 cartons' worth) that has poured into the Bancroft over the years. This agglomeration of paper recently underwent a meticulous appraisal, sorting, rearranging, and indexing--an effort spearheaded by the Bancroft's manuscripts division. The result is an orderly array of the memoranda, letters, membership lists, accounting logs, journals, oral histories, summit registers, outings announcements, election ballots, books, postcards, posters, and maps produced or accumulated by Club members since 1892.

Those materials are now so voluminous that tracking down individual items demands recourse to several bound index volumes keyed to particular aspects of the collection (and a good deal of patience). …

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