Every time I’ve walked through the library on my way to peruse the comic book section or visit the Friends’ bookstore, I’ve noticed a locked room behind a series of glass windows that a sign identified as the Local History Room. I thought it would be an interesting subject for a column, so I emailed Cheri Pape, Local History Archivist at the Fullerton Public Library, who was more than happy to talk about a room where the past is always present.
The Local History Room is a state-of-the-art facility dedicated to collecting and preserving materials pertaining to the history and development of the City of Fullerton from the late 1800s to the present. “The Local History Room started in 1973,” said Cheri. “Albert Launer was a city attorney here. He was very civic minded and a member of the Lions Club and all those other service organizations. He passed away in ’73 right before this library opened, so his wife, Lulu, made a donation to the library to start a historical collection. They took the money from the donation to start the collection and their focus was to organize what they had and then somehow take that and make it available to the public.”
“They were working out of a closet in what is still the back southwest corner of the library,” continued Cheri. “They spent several years organizing what we had, trying to make it accessible and available.” Then they realized the local history collection was growing and it was useful. It soon outgrew its overcrowded quarters and commandeered additional library space on the third floor, where the Teen Center is now. Greater visibility led to more donations and as part of the 2011 Fullerton Library Renovation Project, the collection moved into its current climate-controlled facility that doubled the square footage of the old room due to a donation from Jim Blake.
The collection has changed a lot from what it was back in 1973, moving from the self-serve, browsing model to more of a rare materials, special collection archive. “We have filtered lighting, the right humidity, the right temperature all the time,” said Cheri. “They spent a lot of money on this facility knowing that what we have in here is important and irreplaceable. Advanced digital technology has allowed the library to make the collection available to researchers near and far, while protecting the original documents for generations of Fullertonians to come.”
Cheri was kind enough to take me on a tour through the library’s local history room and collection. With wooden tables and furniture from the WPA Library that was built in 1942, the local history room seemed like the perfect place to relive old memories, find personal photos of a historic house or business, research family history and discover Fullerton’s past. “A lot of the books that are in here are just protected collections,” Cheri explained. “Some of them are books from the original Carnegie Library. Some of them are California history sets. We’ve got a collection of the WPA state books, but probably the most used books are the city directories: who was living here at the time and what they did for a living.”
There were Haines directories sitting on a two-story shelf on top of a desk to the right side of the room. These directories are used by people doing environmental impact reports and private investigators. They’re reverse directories, so you can look someone up by an address or a phone number, not by alphabet like a phone book. “Private investigators come in here all the time,” said Cheri. “They know the phone number, but they don’t know who that person was calling and so they’re able to do that sort of thing here. We have a complete run from ’71 to current which is also a little bit unique in that most libraries just lease current issues. We’re the only ones in Orange County that have that.”
On the back wall of the other side of the room hung a huge map of the City of Fullerton, most likely from the late 1980s. Positioned against the wall alongside the map was a collection of books by local authors, many of whom had attended previous local author talks hosted by the library. An old card catalog sat on a desk cluttered with books and files in the center of the room. I was particularly fascinated by the digital microfilm reader, where really old, deteriorating microfilm that might be illegible in some places is sort of saved. “You can Photoshop things, lighten them, darken them and bring them back to life, things that had gone missing before,” Cheri said as she led me to the archival scanner, which the public is welcome to use if they have slides that need to be scanned. A selection of high school annuals sat in the far corner next to Judson Glass pieces from the WPA library that are also visible outside the room.
Leading me into the back workroom, Cheri showed me a few blueprints of Fullerton’s historic buildings, like Fullerton College, the train station, and the Fox Theatre. “A lot of the original blueprints were actually salvaged from a dumpster in the eighties,” said Cheri. “They weren’t required to keep those, and so they were just taking up space. They survived and were brought over here.” On a different filing cabinet were smaller blueprints of more current buildings. In the drawers of some of the adjacent cabinets, there were giant city seals. “Third graders doing reports are always interested in the city seal and why things are what they are.”
I also had the pleasure of seeing the poster made for the 1984 Olympics when the torch came through Fullerton. “We actually have the torch here that ran through town down in the children’s room,” said Cheri as she pointed to the old Olympic film sign with the white letters of “Fujicolor” running down a green side strip, advertising it as the official film of the 1984 Olympics. “We actually do have an Olympic connection here. Handball was an exhibition sport in ’84 and they did that at Cal State Fullerton.”
In the backroom was a series of movable shelves, where more collections of art pieces, transcripts and other documents were stored. Down the first aisle, we looked at maps and special collections. Often, someone will come in and donate to the collection. Opening a box with the label, “Japanese Doll Exchange,” Cheri said, “Downstairs, in the children’s room, we have a Japanese doll that was a gift from an elementary school in Japan as part of a doll exchange.” In the box I saw amazing artwork that was provided by the students at the school and a history of the doll. Cheri opened another box down the aisle, where I caught a brief glimpse of proclamations, scrapbooks of clippings and other historical materials belonging to previous Fullerton mayor, Howard Cornwell. More giant maps and blueprints were kept at the end of the aisle. “They come in handy whenever someone needs to do a remodel or reconstruction,” said Cheri.
One of Cheri’s favorite items from the collection was an old jail register from 1921. “So it’s literally a list of the people that have passed through the Fullerton jail up until the ’50s. But every once in a while, we’ll find in an article about one of the stories that we like to tell all the time. These two bandits that robbed a San Francisco bank were captured here in Fullerton and we were able to go by date and find them here in the jail register to see how long they stayed in Fullerton. It works on a lot of levels. Prohibition, a lot of people being jailed for possession of alcohol. Sort of a document of the times.”
Newspaper clippings made up the nuts and bolts of the collection, located in the middle of the movable bookshelves. In fact, they are currently working on digitizing, the Fullerton Observer and hope to convert over 100 years of the Fullerton News Tribune from microfilm to a searchable digital format in the near future.
Drawers filled with old and new sets of microfilm from the Fullerton News Tribune dating back to 1893 sat up against the wall of the backroom. An index sat on top of the cabinet in case someone happened to be looking for an obituary of a family member so they could see when it ran.
One of the more popular items that the general public likes to see is the Hunt Robot, a robot made up of Hunt’s tomato paste cans. “It was donated to us along with some other pieces from a dollhouse,” Cheri explained. “A gentleman who lived over by the Hunt factory would grab test cans and their labels and he would make robots out of them. This is a small one. He has one that’s probably about 3½ to 4 feet tall that he’s not quite ready to give up yet because his grandchildren love it too.”
Patrons can now research their family history using the city directories that are available through the library’s website, 3rd graders can pull pictures of historic people and places from the local history room’s Pinterest page and history buffs can follow the collection on Facebook, inquiring and commenting on new additions.
So, whether you’re looking for a picture of the ice-cream shop that was shaped like a cone, a copy of your high school annual proving you were the football superstar you’ve always claimed, or a classified ad from your great aunt’s famous dress shop, it’s here in the Local History Room. The Fullerton Public Library’s Local History Room is open on Mondays from 1pm to 5pm, 6pm to 9pm and on Tuesdays through Thursdays from 10am to 12pm, 2pm to 6pm.
Categories: Local News