The Sutro Library, sometimes confused with the Bancroft Library, occasionally miscalled the Sutter Library and almost always sized up, incorrectly, as an institution specializing in California history, is a branch of the California State Library specializing in American local history and genealogy, British history, old and rare books, and Latin Americana. It is located in space leased from the University of San Francisco next to that institution’s Gleeson Library.

Wags from Southern California have sometimes dubbed the Sutro Library “the poor man’s Huntington.” But, if the Library is not a peer of the Huntington or the Newberry in resources, it is another W. A. Clark Library and is, in size at least, about the equal of the Bancroft. At one time the Sutro Library was interred in the unfinished, sand-floored, sub-basement of the San Francisco Public Library, beneath Civic Center. In August, 1960, the collection was moved to the adequate quarters which it currently inhabits.

The story of Sutro Library is essentially the story of Adolph Sutro, one of those largely-forgotten pioneers of a state which remembers well its railroad barons, silver kings, desperados, and confidence men. Sutro was a man of culture, of peace, not of violence and dramatic action. But he should be remembered, if for no other reason, as our pioneer Western bookman. We can exclude his early rival, H. H. Bancroft, from the company kept by W. A. Clark and H. E. Huntington. Bancroft was really a publisher and historian, not a bibliophile, and when he sold his collection to the University of California it was a working reference library standing behind his sheepskin sets of California history.

Sutro, on the other hand, was a German-Jewish immigrant from Aachen or Aix-la-Chappelle, who came to the Far West in the tobacconist’s trade, but swapped it for a career in self-taught mining engineering. He made a fortune in Washoe’s Comstock Lode by building a stamp mill and the great Sutro Tunnel—one of the engineering wonders of the world in the nineteenth century. This tunnel, driven from a shelf above the Carson River, tapped the flooded mine-shafts of the Comstock Lode and allowed the removal of silver ore to continue. Sutro quit mining at an opportune time, bidding Nevada and his tunnel farewell and taking his millions with him to San Francisco.

He was not ready to retire, and he intended to put his time to good use. He set out to remedy an appalling defect in San Francisco’s cultural façade—the lack of a strong and public library. This was the early 1870’s and the Rogers Act had not yet brought into being the chain of municipal libraries which now seems hoary with age but which dates no further back than 1878. The only reasonably “public” libraries in San Francisco were the association or subscription libraries, the Mercantile, Mechanics, and Odd Fellows Libraries.

Adolph Sutro was soon firmly launched on a new career, one which would make him one of the earliest of the “Book Barons” of whom Lawrence Clark Powell speaks. The ex-tobacconist and mining engineer set about building a great reference and research library, using as his models the British Museum and the libraries of German universities such as Heidelberg and Göttingen. He hired a talented if now little-known bookman, George Moss, from the British Museum, posted an agent in London to watch Sothebys and other auction houses for bargains, and set out on a world tour to buy books, himself. Robert E. Cowan, the San Francisco bookseller and bibliographer, whose Californiana collection is at UCLA, described Sutro’s buying methods best:

He had a queer way of buying, which was particularly successful in Italy. He’d go into a bookshop and see ten or fifteen thousand volumes, mostly in pigskin or parchment. He’d ask how much was wanted, per volume, for the whole collection. Perhaps the dealer would say ‘four lire.’ He’d offer two lire and get the whole stock; and usually, it would be a bargain. Or, he’d go to the old monasteries and ask the monks to sell their old treasures. They’d refuse, whereupon he’d draw from his pocket handfuls of American gold and the impoverished monks would yield.

In Mexico, he told a friend in 1889, he had walked through a warehouse waist-deep in books. Needless to say, he bought them all.

With the help of Moss, his agents abroad, and Frederick Beecher Perkins, the writer and librarian whom he hired away from the San Francisco Public Library, Sutro soon had the makings of a magnificent private library. His buying program was truly prodigious. Before political activity and ill health stopped him, while serving as Mayor of San Francisco, Sutro had acquired in the neighborhood of 250,000 books—probably the largest personal library in the U.S. Unfortunately, he died in 1898, before he could arrange for a building to house the books, and they remained in storage for several years. In the fire and earthquake of April 18, 1906, every library in San Francisco was literally wiped out, save those of Sutro and Bancroft. The latter was far out in the Mission District, ready to move to Berkeley, and it was spared. More than half of the Sutro Library was destroyed—that portion housed in a Valencia Street warehouse—but the Montgomery Block (author Idwal Jones’s old “Ark of Empire”) stood strong and fireproof in the center of the holocaust.

The present-day Sutro Library is therefore built upon some 100,000 earthquake-surviving volumes, plus perhaps 15,000 mss. and a large number of pamphlets and other ephemera—perhaps another 60,000 pieces more. The Library was given to the State of California in 1913 by Sutro’s heirs, with the proviso that it remain in San Francisco. The Sutro Library was legally accepted by the State of California in 1915, and opened for business in 1917. Although it has suffered many misfortunes since then, it has survived and has not closed (barring weekends and the holidays) except for a single day, when the collection was moved to its present quarters.

It is not easy to explain why Sutro paid so much attention to acquiring Latin Americana, and particularly Mexicana. But he collected in all areas of religion, an apparent personal interest, so it was natural that he would have a large Spanish-language collection on Catholicism, sermons, Jesuitica, Biblical commentary, and so forth. He was also always interested in mining. Perhaps his acquisition of necessary mining tools, such as Francisco de Gamboa’s Commentaries on the Mining Ordinances of Spain, led him further and further into the avenues of Spanish and Mexican bibliography. Not only was California mining based on Mexican and Spanish models, but so, too, was California mining law. From these areas it was but a short bibliographic step to collecting books on Mexican history, government, economy, and eventually, literature.

There is no doubt that the greatest Hispanic strength at Sutro Library is in Mexicana, although such imprints as Lima, Guatemala, Madrid, and Manila are not rare. Probably the most valuable single book, worth some $15,000 five years or so ago, is a Mexican imprint, the 1548 Ordenanzas y compilación de leyes of Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, printed in Mexico City by Juan Pablos, the first printer of the New World and “branch manager,” as it were, of Juan Cromberger’s Sevilla printing business. It is, of course, one of the first books printed in the New World and is the first law book published in the Western Hemisphere.

Every day the Sutro Librarian handles printed books of great Latin American interest—even among the duplicates—or “presumed” duplicates, as he carefully terms them. WPA workers were more zealous than careful in their segregating of so-called “dups. ” Before the staff segregates duplicates, they are given to the Sutro Librarian for a last check. This precaution has paid off handsomely, as in the case of “Copy 2” of Gabriel Biel’s Repertorium generale of 1527, which seemed to be identical with one already shelved in the Renaissance Room, the Library’s Rare Books Section. It was—except for a manuscript note and signature at the base of the red and black title page—“Este libro es del obispo de México, frai Joan Cumárraga; Santiago Tlaltilolco.” This, of course, is the Zumárraga who was the first New World bishop and archbishop, whose laudable work in Christianizing Mexico has been overshadowed by his burning of Aztec codices. Thanks to Zumárraga, Sutro Library has only one Aztec codex on tapa-like wild-fig bark paper. Zumárraga also demanded that Juan Diego bring some proof of the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the doubter then fell on his knees when the poor peón opened his serape later to show a miraculously painted picture of “la Virgen.” Happening on association copies of this nature is not a daily occurrence, but almost every book in such a collection of old and rare volumes has something of great value and interest, and this is doubly true of the often unique titles in Mexican history.

The real treasure of Mexicana is a collection of perhaps 30,000 pamphlets, broadsides, and newspapers. In addition, the Library possesses a small collection of Mexican manuscript books, a collection which has hardly been investigated as yet. There are also runs of magazines or journals, with such titles as Iris and Diario de los Niños. But the pamphlets constitute the major source of fresh new material on nineteenth century and earlier Mexico. They are little exploited or even explored, in comparison with the Library’s much-used collection of similar English pamphlets. Yet, one can find no surer guide to the troublous times of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Mexico than these booklets. Written in the heat of argument, of battle, of revolution, they bring to life a time and place removed from us by hundreds of miles and years. Most of their authors were hack pamphleteers, often anonymous, or angry amateurs, or devout and dull padres. But among them there were a handful of men who had something important to say and who had the ability to say it with style. The best guide to this collection of pamphlets is the Library’s card catalog. Next best, and quite good if not really complete, is the set of 14 mimeographed volumes prepared by the Sutro Project of the WPA in 1939 and 1940 and edited by Paul Radin—Catalogue of the Mexican Pamphlets in the Sutro Collection. The words of Gustave Nuermberger’s review of this set, in the HAHR were:

Among the several Government-sponsored projects which have opened rich veins of source materials to American historians, this San Francisco unit seems to have struck a bonanza, indeed. The bibliomania of a successful collector was responsible for the Library. . .. Everyone connected with this project has had a share in a significant contribution to the bibliography of Mexicana.

The pamphlets were bought by Sutro during two book buying entradas in Mexico, in 1885 and 1889. The brochures, flyers, and tracts, center around certain dates—1811-1812, 1820, and 1821-1823. The first period covers the outbreak of the revolution against Spain; the second, the reaffirmation of the Constitution of Cádiz, promulgated eight years earlier. The third high point of publishing activity, 1821-1823, coincides with the birth of the Republic of Mexico.

First and foremost among these folleteros or pamphleteers would be José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi. Familiar to many because of his picaresque novel El Periquillo Sarniento, or The Itching Parrot in the English-language translation, Fernández de Lizardi, if not Mexico’s greatest novelist, is surely a rival to Azuela. And he is, without a doubt, that nation’s finest picaresque writer. He is probably the greatest pamphleteer in the history of the Western Hemisphere. Fernández de Lizardi has not been studied as thoroughly as he deserves. One reason is that little of his work has been reprinted. Most of his canon is rare or unavailable to students. Only Jefferson R. Spell and Lota Spell have devoted years of research to this intriguing man in the U.S., and only Luís González Obregón in Mexico. Who was this pamphleteer-journalist-novelist?

Born November 15, 1776, the would-be poet, pamphleteer, polemicist, liberal, printer and propagandist, entered the Colegio de San Ildefonso in 1793; was again studying there (rhetoric) in 1797 and 1798, but apparently never received his degree. His first known published work was a poem, Polaca, of 1808. The Gazeta de México apparently was not interested in his work, nor was the Diario de México after its 1805 founding, and Lizardi was too poor to subsidize his own writing. But by 1810 he had acquired his own small press and brought out his own works.

The writer took a minimal part in Hidalgo’s revolution of 1810 and was captured at Iguala and taken to Mexico City as a prisoner. He was released, however, and did not engage openly in anti-Spanish activities for some years. In 1821 he joined Agustín Iturbide’s independence movement but was quickly soured on that puppet. He was in and out of prison for years because of his writings, but 1823 was probably the worst year of his career, for he was excommunicated by the Church, not for his fierce attacks on reaction but for his defense of freemasonry, in the pamphlet Defensa de los Francmasones.

Lizardi had enemies among rightists, churchmen, and the military, but he had many more friends. Among the latter were two disciples, Rafael Dávila and Pablo de Villavicencio, whose pen name was ‘El Payo del Rosario.’ These two men are next in importance to Lizardi as political pamphleteers in Mexican history. They are, of course, scarcely known at all here in the U.S. The two were influenced by Lizardi’s writings, particularly by the journal he founded, titled El Pensador Mexicano (his own nom de plume), and the two liberals became The Mexican Thinker’s most loyal and consistent defenders and friends.

Why they are not better-known is a moot question still. It was raised by Paul Radin in 1940, who wrote, “It is almost inconceivable that historians of Mexico and of the intellectual currents of the War of Independence should have so completely forgotten them. The only possible excuse that can be offered is that their writings were either not generally available, or not available at all.” This is likely the ease. Joaquín Fernández de Córdoba noted some years ago that only four institutions had representative collections of Villavicencio—Yale with 25 per cent, the National Library of Mexico with 30 per cent, Texas with 40 per cent, and Sutro Library with 70 per cent.

Many of the pamphlets in Sutro Library, whether of Lizardi, Dávila, Villavicencio, or their anonymous compatriots, are unique copies, not available even at Yale, or Huntington, or Bancroft.

Dávila and Villavicencio rushed to Lizardi’s defense when he was cast from the Church, and the former wrote two dialogues in his memory, one shortly after his death and the other a year or so later.

Among Lizardi’s pamphlets are his spirited arguments in defense of freedom of the press, such as his Defensa de la Libertad de Imprenta of 1821. Lizardi had mistakenly assumed that the Constitution of Cádiz, restored in 1820, and which suppressed the Inquisition of the Board of Censors, gave writers complete freedom of ideas. He was wrong. A special statement, Reglamento Para el Uso de la Libertad de Imprenta (also to be found in Sutro Library) spelled out five areas under the heading Extension of Liberty of the Press, but then devoted four statements to abuses of the press-freedom and eight more to Calificación de los Escritos, or censorship. Works tending to subversion, that is, those critical of either religion or monarchy, and those constituting obscenity and libel, were all taboo. Small wonder Lizardi argued for freedom of the press.

Paul Radin once wrote:

Since the death of Luís González Obregón, and the unfortunate disposal of his Lizardi collection, the one in the Sutro Library has now become the best in existence. It lacks, at most, only twenty of the publications which he possessed and contains at least forty unknown to him. . .. The three other libraries in the U.S. that have significant Lizardi collections are not remotely comparable.

The Oct.-Dec., 1940, Revista de Literatura Mexicana added:

Mexican writers of the early 19th Century, whose works are better represented in Sutro Library than in any other library in America certainly, and possibly in the entire world, including Mexico itself, are pamphleteers Rafael Dávila and Pablo de Villavicencio.

Besides the hoja volante propagandists, there is the Fourth Estate itself, with its newspapers, gazettes, and government journals. The Gaceta de México, Diario de México, and Gaceta de Madrid are marvelous sources, not only for Mexican history, but occasionally, even for U.S. history. In the Gacetas can be found information on Spanish attempts to head off and capture Lewis and Clark. There are details on the gringos captured with Zebulon Pike in New Mexico who were converted and became Catholics in their Mexican captivity. The historian of the West, especially in U.S. history, would do well to search these files.

A truly great source of a variety of data is the collection of Mexican newspapers. These are usually slender files, but still among the best in existence. One of peculiar interest is El Judío Errante, “The Wandering Jew,” again because of its ‘Yanqui’ association. This is a complete set of four numbers of volume I. This Periódico Religioso, Político y de Variedades had such a short life because it offended the censors. What makes this paper so interesting is the fact that the censors were not members of the Inquisition but officers and gentlemen of the United States Army. It was published during the winter of 1847 when the American Army of Occupation was in Mexico City. The Governor’s Secretary, R. P. Hammond, later of San Francisco, wrote the anonymous editor:

I am directed by the Civil and Military Governor to admonish you in relation to an article on page no. 3 of the second number of the ‘Wandering Jew’ entitled Día dos de Noviembre de 1847. The Governor gives you this timely notice of the intention of the General in Chief, if such an article or similar language, again appears in your paper to prohibit its publication and to confiscate the press and printing implements for the benefit of the poor of the City.

The article in question had referred to the American Army of Occupation in something less than friendly terms. Thus:

El invasor en nuestras plazas, haciendo ostentación de su triunfo, y profanando con sus músicas nuestra triste ciudad. . .. El invasor está entre nosotros, y nuestro dolor, nuestra amargura se aumenta con su presencia. . .. Las familias en donde falta el padre, el hijo, el esposo, etc., gimen a la vista de sus asesinos [que] ostentan sus armas y nos insultan con sus músicas militares, vienen a nuestra Plaza de Armas a ejecutar en nuestra presencia evoluciones militares como para decir a nuestras mugeres ‘nosotros os hemos dejado viudas’. . ..

After receiving Hammond’s order, the editor issued a last, truncated farewell number, one page long. In it he said,

La antecedente prevención no deja duda que el Judío Errante tiene que abandonar la pluma, y no dirigir a los Mexicanos en la política que deben establecer con respecto a sus diferencias con el gobierno Norte Americano. ¡Mudar de estilo! ¡Olvidar el lenguaje del hombre que conoce sus derechos y los ve ultrajados! Esto no es dable al editor del Judío. . .. ¡Quedad con Dios!

Author notes


The author is Sutro Librarian of the California State Library.