Friday, April 14, 2017

Not Everything is Digitized: The Art of Discovery in a Public Archive

By Ivy Anderson and Devon Angus

The public archive is a sacred space; like any public library, these spaces offer free, democratic access to information and are staffed by trained professionals ready to help you turn that information into knowledge. In our capitalist society, access to information usually comes with a price. One must pay for Internet access, higher education, museum entrance fees, journal subscriptions, but public archives are accessible for anyone, for free. As amateur researchers, the California Historical Society archive was an indispensable resource for us, a space of transformative discovery, where our casual fascination with yesteryear lead us into a multi-year research process that culminated in the publication of an award winning book, Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute (Heyday, 2016).

Neither of us had advanced degrees, but we are both the type of people who become immediately excited by the smell of musty old paper. We’d visited archives as college students, working on research papers. We’d done our duty, using snippets of primary documents to assist our papers, looking for something to give us a bump in grades. This felt professional, yet temporary. Archives were for academics or students, we’d thought. We’d most likely move on and have little future use for them. As historians working outside of academia, we sometimes felt nervous about our access to archives. But as we went down the rabbit-hole of discovery, neither of us could stop. We’d go to the CHS archive on our weekends for the thrill of revelation; each slip of paper told a story, held a clue, added depth to our own understandings of the past and thus the present.

During our first visits to the archive as independent researchers, we were admittedly a bit embarrassed about our inexperience. There seemed to be a code of conduct that we weren’t yet aware of. When were you supposed to wear those little white gloves while handling documents? Were you always welcome to photograph the documents? It is laughable, now that we have developed relationships with many of the librarians at the CHS archive, but early on we were nervous to reveal our lack of experience to the librarians in charge. We had unknowingly bought into a tragic myth of the archive: that it is a pretentious space, a space meant for professionals and professionals only. It wasn’t long before this myth was, thankfully, shattered.

Looking through the James Rolph Jr. papers, a collection of one of San Francisco’s most colorful mayors (1912-1931), we were on the hunt for information concerning the closure of San Francisco’s infamous vice district of yore, the Barbary Coast. We had discovered evidence of a prostitute’s memoir, published by the controversial newspaperman Fremont Older in the San Francisco Bulletin at some point during Rolph’s mayoral tenure. We were working through the early stages of research, and still not fully comfortable. Instead of asking our librarians for assistance, we confined our research to the names, dates, and files we found in our own secondary research. As we sifted through folders, quiet as church mice, we heard a loud man enter. His sharp boots, echoing his speech, broke the cathedral-like solemnity of the room with an urgent request: he needed to get to Bodie, a ghost town in the Eastern Sierras, that weekend, and he needed information. What information, he wasn’t sure about. Could they help him? We paused over the hand-written letters to Rolph in 1913 complaining about interracial dancing in the Barbary Coast. His gregarious demeanor and eccentric request seemed to break all of these unwritten “codes” of intellectual propriety that we had tried to emulate within the holy archive. Would he be shushed and shunned? Is that not what every librarian in every film depiction throughout history would have done? Of course, the librarians were nothing but helpful, warm, and knowledgeable. They were soon deep in conversation with the Bodie-bound man. Advice and information was passed back and forth without a single stroke of a computer button. This moment struck us as something essential about libraries and archives that had been passed by in the digital age. It made us feel much more comfortable working with the staff, where before we had been perhaps too shy.

While we certainly did much of our research online, there were several instances where the online materials were either non-existent, incomplete, or simply inaccurate. None of the documents that lead us to our ultimate discovery, the memoir of the San Francisco based prostitute “Alice Smith,” written in 1913, existed online. Our project depended upon the diligent preservation of materials by librarians. While we found one mention of Smith’s memoir on a Wikipedia page, there were all sorts of inaccuracies in the article. It appeared that few, if any, had actually read her memoirs since they had been serialized in the San Francisco Bulletin in 1913. Every book we had found that spoke of the publication had either gotten the date wrong or didn’t mention a date at all. Many sources dated the publication of her story to 1917, though we were doubtful. We eventually found Alice’s memoirs on microfilm after scrolling for days through years of one of the city’s most popular dailies, housed on the 5th floor of San Francisco’s Main Library. We spent countless hours, days, and months, in cafes, bars, libraries, and our living room transcribing the hundreds of pages of Alice’s story from the scanned microfilm.

At the California Historical Society’s archives, we found vital primary documents that helped us to unravel the story behind Alice. Letters written by 20th century anti-vice reformers to Mayor Rolph were typed on stationery branded with an iconic symbol of San Francisco’s 19th century vigilante gangs: the all-seeing eye. We had the pleasure of digging through the meeting minutes of early League of Women Voters organizers, in which they revealed the challenges they faced trying to do outreach with sex workers who wanted nothing to do with their anti-vice reform efforts. We had read letters penned to the Bulletin by sex workers in 1913, where they discussed how suspicious they were of the women’s clubs and their reform agenda. These handwritten meeting minutes, which were still being catalogued by the CHS and thus had not been looked at for many years, if not decades, contained admissions that reinforced our growing understanding of the complex divisions between the feminist ideals of Progressive Era reformers and the feminism of sex workers. At the University of Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, we found unsettling letters sent to Fremont Older, who had published Smith’s story in the San Francisco Bulletin, threatening to dynamite his home and office, written in an unnerving scrawl reminiscent of San Francisco’s own Zodiac-killer. We also, after a long search, discovered the possible real name of Alice Smith, a pseudonym. In 1913, Smith bemoaned the ways in which sex worker voices were marginalized and discarded by society. If it were not for the due diligence of later librarians and archivists, her story, too, would have faded away into obscurity. And if it were not for the principle of the public library, the public archive, us amateurs would have never had the opportunity to engage in this work, work that has defined and shaped our lives, and, we hope, the lives of our readers.

Ivy Anderson and Devon Angus are both writers, artists, and activists based in San Francisco. Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute, which won the 2015 California Historical Society Book Award, is their first book.

For more information about Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute, please visit:

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