The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1991, Volume 37, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

by Lyn Olsson
Archives Assistant, Special Collections, San Diego State University

Images from the Article

“So, what do you have in Special Collections, anyway?” Our staff has been asked that question innumerable times, before having the chance to show the inquiring researcher our in-house guides. The question does not elicit a short answer by any means, but for readers of the Journal of San Diego History I will cut it to a reasonable length and overview only those archival resources that concern San Diego history. But first, a little about Special Collections in general.

Special Collections is a part of the Malcolm A. Love Library of San Diego State University. Universities of the California State University system, of which SDSU is a part, have one library per campus, and the SDSU library serves a student population of approximately 34,000.

Special Collections used to be known solely for its collections of rare books, and the occasional archival and manuscript collection, not necessarily of San Diego subjects. Of course the book collection continues to grow stronger, with over 30,000 volumes on a wide variety of topics, the best known of which are the Zinner History of Astronomy, Norland Natural History, and Chater Science Fiction Collection. Usage of Special Collections books has risen dramatically in the last year, due in part to the installation of the Library’s computerized card catalog, called the “PAC.” We will soon be inputting selected archival and manuscript collections into the same system. As for the approximately sixty-nine non-San Diego archival collections, our Adams Postcard Collection of some 200,000 items is impressive (and does have large categories on San Diego and Southern California);1 the U.S. Civil War Collection is of considerable value to researchers. The papers of Mesoamerican archaeologist Robert Smith, Czech composer Bedrich Vaska, and Older Women’s League co-founder Tish Sommers are examples of some of the other collections on hand. A wide variety of material types are represented in Special Collections, with examples of just about any type of print media one can think of.

The San Diego component of Special Collections was established almost three years ago with the receipt of two large and valuable collections of archival material from other SDSU repositories. The archives of the University had been actively growing since the 1950s (the University was founded as a teacher training school in 1897) and was the first of the two large collections to be transferred to Special Collections.

Previously known as the San Diego History Research Center, the University’s Center for Regional History’s very impressive San Diego holdings of over one hundred collections — now amounting to almost 3500 linear feet — had been acquired for the University by the Center’s former directors over a ten-year period. Through active acquisitions an exemplary archive of 20th century San Diego history was compiled. These wonderful San Diego resources were transferred to Special Collections in the spring of 1989, and are known as a group simply as the San Diego Collections of Special Collections.

One of the first San Diego collections to have been accessioned, and still considered the prize of the collections is the archive of the renowned Hotel del Coronado. This collection of some fifty-five linear feet of records and papers spans the years 1887 to 1970, with the vast majority of the collection predating 1940. This was a time of profound development for Coronado and San Diego and of incredible social activity in the history of the hotel.

The Hotel del Coronado, which opened February 1888, was built in a little over one year with funds from Elisha S. Babcock and friend and business partner H. L. Story through their real estate investment syndicate, the Coronado Beach Company. The troubled U.S. economy at the time that the hotel opened caused the hotel to struggle financially from the start. But entrepreneur John D. Spreckels had arrived in San Diego shortly before the opening of the hotel, and through the encouragement of Babcock to assist financially, it was not long before Spreckels invested in the Coronado Beach Company. Spreckels’ involvement and investment grew, and by the turn of the century Babcock was the hotel’s manager, no longer the owner.2

Of most value to researchers using the Hotel del Coronado Collection, and thus the most frequently consulted, is the series of bound correspondence which consists of copies of all outgoing letters written by Elisha S. Babcock between February 1888 and September 1907. It is unfortunate that no incoming correspondence survived but in spite of this gap in the historical record, the one-sided correspondence gives researchers valuable, one-of-a-kind insight into not only the running of the Hotel del Coronado, but also the development of Coronado and San Diego. Elisha Babcock carried on a very active correspondence with individuals and businesses with interests in various aspects of the development of the region, including, railroads, shipping, water resources, agriculture, and mining. The years 1888 to 1894 of the correspondence series have been indexed by subject; years 1895 to 1907 are still to be done. Among other records, guest registers, room books, borders’ ledgers, financial records, scrapbooks, memorabilia, and photographs are also well represented in the Hotel del Coronado Collection.

A company of related interest, also founded by Elisha S. Babcock and H. L. Story, is the San Diego & Coronado Ferry Company which, from 1886 to 1969, provided ferry transportation between San Diego, Coronado, and North Island for vehicles and pedestrians. The company’s first function was to transport construction workers to build the Hotel del Coronado and to promote the development of Coronado as a health resort.3 The San Diego & Coronado Ferry Company Collection is considerably smaller than the Hotel del Coronado archive, consisting of 1.5 linear feet; it covers the years 1900 to 1937 and consists primarily of financial records.

Health and social service agencies are a major focus of the San Diego Collections which maintains extensive holdings for the San Diego Association for Retarded Citizens, Community Congress of San Diego, Family Services Association, San Diego County Medical Society, Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation, United Way of San Diego County, and San Diego County Department of Public Health Services.

The most heavily used of these collections and having the most varied subject matter is the San Diego County Department of Public Health Services, fifty-four linear feet, 1876-1981. This collection contains not only the standard historical files of minutes of meetings, annual reports, and correspondence of the fledgling organization, but also contains records of a more contemporary nature — information on San Diego County health centers, training programs, health education programs and services, and public relations. Information on County Mental Health in the 1960s and 1970s is well represented. But of course the materials most frequently requested are the older ones which make up a small part of the total collection — the minutes of meetings for County and City Boards of Health, and annual and narrative reports are the most popular. A myriad of San Diego health topics are covered in these resources such as the influenza epidemic of 1918 (although certainly not a problem only in San Diego), quarantine stations and pest houses, refuse and sewage disposal, contagious diseases, and restaurant and grocery sanitation regulations. With careful and knowledgeable reading of the minutes of meetings, one gains insight into the difficulties medical professionals faced at the turn of the century when armed with their limited (but growing) knowledge, and confronted with the health issues of the day.

A number of environmental organizations are represented in the San Diego Collections, most notably the San Diego Audubon Society, and Sierra Club of San Diego County. The local chapters of both organizations were founded in the 1940s, and the records cover the 1950s through 1980. These collections give an interesting, insightful view into environmental issues during the 1950s through the 1970s, when much of San Diego’s environmental policy-making was just getting off the ground.

The papers of two individuals must not go unnoticed in this article — those of Harold Keen and Robert (Bob) Carlton Wilson. Harold Keen, long considered the “dean of San Diego journalists,” came to San Diego in 1936 to work as a reporter for the San Diego Sun. Subsequently, as a reporter for the San Diego Union, contributing editor for San Diego Magazine, and editorial director for KFMB-TV,4 he grew in stature and recognition throughout San Diego for his incredibly insightful research and straightforward writing style. San Diego’s powerful people and the political and social structure of San Diego were some of the areas of his expertise; for example, he extensively researched C. Arnholt Smith, Mayor Pete Wilson, and the industrial power structure of San Diego. Harold Keen died in 1981; the collection covers 1936 (when he first applied for jobs in San Diego) to 1981, and includes an extensive correspondence series, research material, commentaries and commentary indexes, miscellaneous papers and articles by and about Mr. Keen, and complete scrapbooks of his San Diego career.

The U.S. Navy and San Diego sometimes seem to be as one. This can be documented with an examination of the Bob Wilson Papers, 1953-1980, 540 linear feet. Bob Wilson is a retired member of Congress, 41st District of California. He was born in Imperial County in 1916, moved to San Diego in 1928, attended school and worked at a wide variety of jobs in San Diego until his election in 1952 to the United States Congress as representative of San Diego’s 30th District (currently the 41st Congressional District). A staunch booster of San Diego, Wilson held this position until his retirement in 1980. An incredibly wide range of congressional activities are documented in this collection, but Wilson is best known for his membership in the House Armed Services Committee of which he was ranking member from 1975 onwards.5 No collection for the faint of heart, this massive collection has received only preliminary processing. However, serious researchers frequently find the preliminary inventory satisfactory — the extra effort required to search through a few more boxes may pay off when one discovers that essential gem of information.

One collection not to be overlooked in this brief survey of the San Diego Collections is that of San Diego’s priceless Old Globe Theatre. Much of the illustrious history of the Old Globe is documented in the forty-two linear foot collection, 1935-1984. The Old Globe Theatre opened for the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition on 29 May 1935 and is California’s oldest professional theater.6

The Old Globe Theatre collection is divided into a number of record series, and as is true of any organization that continues to exist into contemporary times, many of the series concern the day-to-day operations of the organization. Thus, in conjunction with the historical and organizational files, the files of the Board of Directors, business, public relations, educational development, membership, financial, and box offices give a most complete picture of the Old Globe. Of course, the collection would not be complete without the extensive files on the performances and Shakespeare Festivals which include flyers, releases, programs and playbills, reviews, and almost everything produced in conjunction with a specific play. It is a most unusual collection in that it is so complete.

The Center for Women’s Studies and Services (CWSS) Collection is one of five collections pertaining to women’s rights. The others are San Diego County National Organization for Women, League of Women Voters, San Diego City Advisory Board on Women, and the Tish Sommers Papers.7CWSS was established in 1969, and was the first women’s liberation group in San Diego. This collection of approximately fifteen linear feet covers the years 1969 to 1981. CWSS is a non-profit organization that is comprised of four major components: academic; storefront and feminist counseling; publications, education and culture; and special projects. The academic component was formed on the SDSU campus and became the first official Women’s Studies Program in the nation.8

This leads finally to a brief discussion of the holdings of the archives of SDSU. Founded in 1897 as a school for elementary teachers, it has evolved dramatically over the years, and in 1971 was awarded university status. Having been in existence for almost one hundred years, the institution has generated a considerable amount of historical documentation, much of which is to be found in the University Archives. The University Archives of Special Collections is divided into separate, discrete collections. To give an idea of the size of the SDSU Archives, some comprehensive figures are handy: 600 linear feet of archival and manuscript materials; 100 linear feet of published and unpublished reports, periodicals, and serials; a photograph collection of approximately 15,000 images; and a growing oral history collection. A topical file provides quick information on some 400 university-related subjects.

As is standard for any university archive, the usual course catalogs, yearbooks, commencement programs, faculty biographies, etc, are collected. But so are records documenting departmental activities, special projects, and the university’s physical growth, to name a few subjects. The establishment of the Women’s Studies Program is documented in the University Archives,9 and dovetails nicely with the CWSS collection noted above as a part of the San Diego Collections. Also represented are the papers of SDSU presidents, and organizational records of the Senate, Academic Affairs, Institute on World Affairs, SDSU Press, Associated Students, and many other campus offices.

All of our collections are open to the public, free of charge. Conditions of use do pertain to some of the collections and Special Collections materials do not circulate. Where do you find these resources? Special Collections is located in Room 504 of the Malcolm A. Love Library of the SDSU campus. Hours are Monday through Friday, 10:00-3:00. Because many of the collections are housed in compact storage, it is advisable to call in advance of a visit to ensure the accessibility of the collection you are interested in. The Special Collections staff will assist you in using the in-house finding aids, in some instances over the phone. Retrieval of stored materials is usually on a 24-hour basis. Telephone number 594-6791 will put you in touch with Special Collections staff.

For research on SDSU or San Diego topics of the late 1800s or 20th century, a phone call to the SDSU Special Collections may turn up just the valuable information you have been searching for.

Special Collections
Malcolm A. Love Library
San Diego State University
San Diego, CA 92182
(619) 594-6791

Hours: Monday – Friday, 10:00 – 3:00


Ruth Leerhof, Head, Special Collections
Lyn Olsson, Archives Assistant



1. In 1989, John Adams, emeritus English faculty of SDSU, and his wife Jane, made a large donation to the University Library of their extensive library, collections of memorabilia, and their very comprehensive postcard collection.

2. Thomas J. Morrow, Hotel del Coronado (Coronado, California: Hotel del Coronado, 1984),18.

3. Inventory to collection, San Diego & Coronado Ferry Company.

4. Stephen A. Colston, “Guide to the Archives of the Center for Regional History,” (unpublished manuscript, 1986).

5. Stephen A. Colston, “Guide to the Archives of the Center for Regional History,” (unpublished manuscript, 1986); inventory to collection, Robert Carlton Wilson Papers.

6. Inventory to collection, Old Globe Theatre.

7. The Tish Sommers Papers, also mentioned at the beginning of this article, are not specifically of a San Diego subject area, but are mentioned here because of their importance to women’s rights. Tish Sommers was co-founder of the Older Women’s League, now a national organization, which fights for the fights of older women, especially in the areas of medical care and financial security.

8. Inventory to collection, Center for Women’s Studies and Services.

9. SDSU Archives basement holdings, B-10, B-28, B-104; periodical holdings.

Lyn Olsson is the Archives Assistant for Special Collections, San Diego State University Library. She has a B.A. degree in anthropology from SDSU, and has received formal archival training through conferences and workshops sponsored by the Society of California Archivists and the American Association for State and Local History. Contact Lyn Olsson at: [email protected]