The keeper of Marin’s history now has the room to archive it.
ROUND PEG IN a square hole? Not Laurie Thompson. As librarian of the Anne T. Kent California Room at the Marin County Civic Center, she seems to have found her ideal job.
Thompson grew up in Corte Madera and after graduating from Redwood High, she went to UC San Diego and majored in Spanish literature, which prepared her well for what came next. She spent most of the 1980s in Barcelona, studying in depth, of all things, poetry of the oral tradition of the medieval era. Thompson learned the art of book binding, taught English to doctors at a medical school, and traveled. But being a self-confessed bookworm, she eventually returned to academia, earning a master’s in library science from Columbia University in New York, mentored by legendary rare book guru Terry Bellanger.
Later, back in the Bay Area, she worked in rare book auctions, heading a department in the San Francisco office of Butterfield and Butterfield (now Bonhams), but eventually maxed out on the peripatetic pressure of that high-end rarefied life. Also, she firmly believed rare books, maps and manuscripts should be available not just to the wealthy, but people of all stations in life. Hearing the county Free Library was looking for a librarian, she took the job in the California Room in 2001 and has been there ever since. She and her husband, Patrick, live in Petaluma.
Can you describe the Anne T. Kent California Room and explain its mission? Well, the California Room started in the mid-1930s with a small collection of books and documents kept in locked cases in the central branch of the Marin County Free Library. At that time, the library was headquartered in the basement of Marin County’s old courthouse in downtown San Rafael. Since then, thanks to the vision of county librarian Virginia Keating, our mission has been to collect, preserve and share local, regional and state history. Our special collections focus on the history of Marin and include photographs, maps, and oral history interviews, even vintage motion picture footage. Popular special collections include History of San Quentin State Prison, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Marin County Civic Center, The California Motion Picture Corporation (a silent film studio once located in San Rafael), The Kent Family and the History of Kentfield, History of Marin’s Mountain Play, and our recently acquired extensive collection of unrecorded Marin County maps and survey data.
What is the scope of the collection? In all, the resources of the Anne T. Kent California Room include over 30,000 historic maps and surveys, over 25,000 photographs, 575 oral history interviews, 345 linear feet of newspaper and pamphlet files, 35 linear feet of original documents, 54 linear feet of biography files, 36 linear feet of historic directories and phone books, over 500 local yearbooks, 200 local periodicals and more than 11,000 books.
Who was Anne T. Kent? Anne Thompson was born on Long Island in 1892 and became a children’s librarian prior to her marriage to Thomas Kent, the second son of U.S. Congressman William Kent. She and her husband moved to Kentfield in 1918 and soon she helped found the Marin County Free Library system; she is the holder of library card number one. Then, with Carla Ehat, she developed the oral history program for the California Room, and on her death in 1981 the Anne T. Kent California Room was renamed in her honor.
Describe three items in the California Room collection that make your heart beat a little faster. If I have to choose, I’d say number one is our California Motion Picture Corporation archive. Starting in 1914, San Rafael was home to the California Motion Picture Corporation, which shot many films in Marin, capturing much of the county’s landscape and people. Since most of the CMPC’s legacy was destroyed in a 1931 fire, our collection also provides unique insight into California’s early motion picture industry. Working with the California Film Institute, we’ve twice screened Salome Jane, CMPC’s only extant film, at the Rafael Film Center, both times to sold-out crowds.
My heart also skips a beat over our recently acquired 1873 map of Marin. Thanks to the generosity of Jeff Craemer, we were able to purchase one of the best copies of this map still in existence. It shows Marin’s original 21 land grants, highlighted by hand coloring, and reveals landowners, geographic features, tidelands, waterways and school districts. Heart flutterer number three is an archive of films from the David Swingle collection showing rare glimpses of the Hotel Rafael, life at San Rafael High School in the 1940s and ’50s, Marinship and Marin City during World War II, and the Marin County Civic Center shortly after it opened in 1963.
Who uses materials in the Anne T. Kent California Room? We interact with people of all ages and walks of life; absolutely anyone interested in Marin County’s history is welcomed. Third and fourth graders come with their parents to work on local history reports, and high school and college students drop in to complete term papers. We also often work with writers and scholars by providing research assistance and access to our digital photographic collection for use in their publications. And residents also stop by to learn about their hometown or to research their family’s history.
Describe the California Room’s online offerings. The California Room’s extensive online presence includes a digital collection of thousands of photographs, oral histories, newspapers, ephemera and documents. So sitting at home you can browse through digital albums or search for specific topics. We also have a weekly local history blog that spotlights an interesting facet of Marin history and keeps our readers updated on local history news and events. Our digital archivist, Carol Acquaviva, maintains a vibrant Twitter presence and has thousands of followers. You’ll find this information at marinlibrary.org/californiaroom.
How big is your staff, including volunteers? Carol and I are the only full-time staff members; she’s been our digital archivist for 15 years and does an outstanding job of making our local history collection available online. As for volunteers, at any given time we have from 10 to 15, all of them helping us to preserve and disseminate local history. Dave Williams and Cathy Gowdy, who have been volunteering for over 10 years and are genealogy experts, provide service to those researching family history. Other dedicated volunteers are Rick Bartolacelli, Jocelyn Moss, Anne Marie Manisto, Drusilla Miller and Michelle Hirsch. At our new map and special collections annex we offer the expertise of Marin historian Dewey Livingston along with assistance from local surveyors William Schroeder and Phil Danskin, writer and historian Brian Crawford, local architect and photographer Brad Rippe, and high school student Adeline Ellison.
Does the California Room have films of Marin’s past available for checking out? What are some titles? Between 1970 and 1980, under the direction of their teacher David Swingle, film students from San Rafael and Terra Linda high schools produced or restored over a dozen films showing historic aspects of Marin County and San Francisco from the early 20th century to the mid-1970s, and nine are ready to be checked out. Titles include Marin in the Innocent Years: 1914-1915; Echoes ’76: Marin History from Miwok Days to 1976; The Crookedest Railroad in the World: Mount Tamalpais Scenic Railway; Tanker: History of Marinship during World War II; and Disaster at Dawn: Eyewitness Story of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire.
Can you tell us about the new Anne T. Kent California Room Map and Special Collections Annex? This is so exciting. In late 2015, we acquired a collection of more than 30,000 unrecorded local land surveys dating to 1849. In it are maps, plats, subdivisions, field notes and ledgers. For over 150 years, this valuable time capsule had been passed down among several local land surveyors until the last owner, William Schroeder, felt strongly the collection should be available to the public and preserved for future generations. So thanks to Mr. Schroeder, along with Marin County Public Works, the assessor’s office and the Marin County Free Library, these materials are being preserved and disseminated at our new Map and Special Collections Annex. And again, thanks to funding from Jeff Craemer, we are in the process of organizing, cataloging and digitizing this rare collection in an archival environment.