On the second floor of Sacramento Public Library’s downtown branch is a special collection known as the Sacramento Room. Here, curious minds may look at some of the oldest pieces of history in the state, stored safely inside temperature-controlled vaults. James Scott has been a reference librarian since 2000, with most of that time dedicated to working in the Sacramento Room. He’s the keeper of ancient runes and other pieces of literature: city directories, even children’s books. The ticket that was used for the first showing at the Crest Theatre is in one of SPL’s vaults, Scott told SN&R. He and his colleagues in special collections enjoy their work, he says, because it keeps the tapestry of Sacramento alive, whether that’s our cultural heritage from the early days of the Gold Rush or rare books written by eccentric local authors. It’s all in the confines of the Sacramento Room. Scott took SN&R inside one vault to discuss the collection’s role in keeping history intact for future generations.
Tell me about the Sacramento Room.
We are in the original building that was constructed in 1918, the Carnegie-funded library that had been the reference room. This is where you would’ve come if you went to Fremont Elementary School and you needed to do your paper on China. … You’d come up to the second floor and there would be a big reference desk here, and it was this way all the way until the late ’80s, and then we built the new wing.
In 1995, this room was rehabilitated and turned into a special collections, a place where we have rare, unique, often fragile items … In this case, it’s history. It’s local history. We also have a California history section. We’ve got a pop-up book collection. A children’s collection. A book arts collection. We’ve got city directories, phone books, periodicals like the News & Review. In fact, we had a guy come in here two weeks ago and he wanted an article out of SN&R from the early ’90s and we’re like, “Sure, gotcha covered.” … We try to keep that stuff alive because it’s so vital. It’s ephemeral, but that’s the fight we wage, is trying to keep that stuff alive.
What’s the rarest piece in the vault?
There are two items that I think have that wow factor, and we love to show them to people. One has nothing to do with Sacramento, but it’s a great way to teach people about the history of the book. I can’t tell you how it was acquired, but it does date back to the early 1400s, and it’s a collection of psalms from the Christian Bible and it’s all handwritten.
It’s done in Latin. It predates the printing press, which is mid-15th century. It’d be nice to think it could live forever. But, if you could imagine in the early 1400s, very likely a monk in France under candlelight taking the time to do this.
We like to tell folks, because we are a public library, we’re tax-funded; all of this belongs to you. It’s just our job to keep it nice and safe and strike the balance between preservation and access. There is absolutely nothing in the room we can keep anybody from, nor would we want to. It’s our job to keep these things safe, going and accessible for you.
Any Sacramento treasures in there?
My favorite, Grave of Lost Stories by William Vollmann, a local author who has his workshop in Alkali Flat. He is a fly-under-the-radar kind of guy. He doesn’t seek the spotlight. He’s won the National Book Award a couple of times. He’s eccentric and he likes to try new things, explore new territory and in this case he wanted to try out book arts.
The genre, itself, is this sort of thing that transcends the written word. The book, itself, which is his homage to Edgar Allan Poe, who was an inspiration to him as a writer, is a sarcophagus. He tried to use the most poisonous substances possible to provide the pigment for the cover. Galvanic battery acidic is one, pickled squid is the other. People love this book. They go crazy for it. The story is basically the story of Poe’s demise and eventually he gets swallowed up by the earth. … This is the kind of thing that people love. It’s the kind of thing that we will guard for them forever.
Ever investigate something cool just using this room?
We had a gentlemen walk into the Sacramento Room all the way from Texas, and he was interested in finding information on a person named D.C. Gray. He said there was some connection to McClellan Air Force Base. … As we went on, he started to open up a little bit and he said he was here on behalf of a fellow who lives in Texas in his 90s who’s an ex-aviator, Lt. Richard Cole. He was part of a raid on Japan in March 1942, just right after Pearl Harbor. His plane was low on fuel after the raid, so he had to parachute from his plane … While he was wrapping up his parachute, he saw that it read “Packed by D.C. Gray Sacramento Air Depot.” …
A running tradition at that time was if you parachuted and you made it, then your parachute was packed well and you owed the packer a box of cigars. … Lt. Cole mentioned that he’d really like to get that box of cigars to that man. … We looked and looked and we started to get really excited because we eventually found something in the city directory, which led us to a World War II draft registration card that said that this fellow, D.C. Gray, worked at the air depot. … We eventually were able to find surviving family members that said, “Yeah, grandpa packed parachutes at McClellan.” … It’s a capstone to the last surviving member of the Doolittle Raid … Lt. Cole decided to send off that box of cigars to D.C. Gray’s relatives to seal the deal.