Library & Special Collections


The Alice Phelan Sullivan Library was one of the first libraries established in the city of San Francisco.  The library collection is particularly rich in books and documents that chronicle the Spanish and Mexican eras, pioneer travels overland and around the Horn, the Gold Rush and later mining ventures, urbanization and the construction of the railroads, and biographical information on early Pioneers and other notables in California history.  By 1855, The Society had established an acquisition fund and began offering its reading room visitors the New York Herald, Punch, and a selection of popular novels while also acquiring materials pertaining to the early history of the state.  From a collection of 600 books in 1860, the library grew to house 3,000 volumes by 1878, including many seminal works relating to the state’s early history.  Most of the books were lost in the earthquake and fire of 1906, but irreplaceable manuscripts like the Sutter diary and The Society’s own records that had been kept separately in a vault survived the disaster.  After 1906, The Society rebuilt the collection so that it now numbers over 7,000 books, 20,000 manuscripts and archival items (maps, periodicals and other printed ephemera).  There are also over 2500 maps from the 19th and early 20th century in the collection.

Collections include: books, manuscripts, diaries and journals, business ledgers, scrapbooks, newspapers and periodicals.  Other items fall under the classification of ephemera, but are just as important for research: billheads, letter sheets, business and trade cards, playbills, menus, sheet music, theater broadsides and advertisements.  Biographical, subject and county files are also in the collection.

Books and Manuscripts
The book collection spans the 17th century through the current time and includes published accounts of overland and ship journeys, city directories, biographies, state publications, periodicals and newspapers.  Early explorations, railroad publications, 1906 earthquake and reference works round out the collection.

Manuscripts include diaries of early pioneers (written on both wagon train and aboard ship), letters, ledgers, business records, and legal records.  A sampling of the Californians represented in our collection includes: John A. Sutter, Thos. Starr King, Jacob R. Snyder, Jacob P. Leese, James H. Lick, John Charles Fremont, Charles Kimball as well as the Cooper-Molera Papers and the Patterson Mining Collection of mine records, correspondence and maps.  Our scrapbooks also contain valuable manuscript material.

Our collection also includes the autobiographies and reminiscences of some of The Society’s earliest members. In 1900, our founding members were asked to write down what they remembered about arriving and settling in California. These recollections were transcribed and bound into eight leather volumes which The Society still has today – these rare, first-person accounts of life in early California are digitized: The Autobiographies and Reminiscences

Maps and Ephemera
Our map collection numbers of 2500, and includes maps from the 17th through the early 20th century.  All are related to early exploration of the West and California, and many are hand-drawn or appear in manuscripts or diaries.  A large group is associated with the Patterson Mining Collection, which covers mining in California and Nevada in the last half of the 19th century and the early 20th century.  All manner of maps are represented: hand-drawn, engraved, lithographed and chromolithography.
Ephemera in the collection includes every printed material imaginable: billheads, business cards, playbills, menus and advertising.  Other printed materials in the archives include: sheet music, broadsides, and letter sheets (stationary printed exclusively for gold miners to write home to their families).  Our collection also includes Biographical, California Files, and County files – which include a variety of research items such as newspaper clippings, brochures, and ephemera.

A few major collectors have made significant contributions to the Library’s holdings.  The Charles B. Turrill collection of books, manuscripts, and photographs, the Sherman Music collection of sheet music, programs, and playbills, and manuscript collections such as the Jacob Rink Snyder papers, Jacob Primer Leese Papers, Cooper-Molera papers, and the Patterson Mining collection.  All are primary resources in the documentation of the state’s history.  The collection is also notably strong in overland and ships’ diaries, many of them donated by Pioneer families.  A few highlights of the collection are the New Helvetia diary of John Sutter describing the discovery of gold, the diary of Peter Decker that recounts his overland journey from Ohio and the early Yosemite valley, and the  beautifu publication Voyage pittoresque autour du monde (Paris, 1822) with hand-colored lithographs by Louis Choris.  Periodicals, newspapers and ephemera afford another glimpse of the daily lives of the state’s inhabitants.

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