At the California State Library, the delights and treasures are yours


This story is part of our April 2022 print issue. To subscribe, click here.

“Reserved” is a pretty apt descriptor for the California State Library. It is also mapped, logged, displayed and documented. In fact, there are around 6 million items in its inventory. Four million of them are books, and nearly 2,000 of them are law books.

If you love nature, the library will make you an ornithologist in heaven with its exquisite collection of 435 hand-colored aquatint prints based on John James Audubon’s original watercolors. What makes “The Birds of America” ​​particularly breathtaking is that the fowl and flora are life-size renderings.

“Every day I come to work is like going to heaven,” Jessica Knox-Jensen, head of the State Library Services Office, said during a recent private tour of the massive Streets facility. 9th and N in downtown Sacramento. The library has two buildings at this location, connected by a tunnel that runs under busy N Street. But that’s not for worker protection. “We don’t want any books or artifacts to get wet,” she says, adding with a smile, “We really don’t care to do that.” Knox-Jensen, who has worked at the State Library for more than four years, worked at the State Archives for a decade. She holds two master’s degrees, one of which is from San Jose State in Library Information Services.

Original prints of John James Audubon’s work are shown by, left to right, Sue Tyson, head of the California history section at the library; Alex Vassar, communications manager; and student assistant Arthur Henry.

Although many of the institution’s treasures are remarkably accessible, it is advisable to make an appointment to visit them (see box).

“I love when the hallways and rooms are filled with people doing research or just reading for fun.”

Jessica Knox-Jensen, Chief of the California State Library Services Office

“COVID has shut us down pretty tightly,” says Alex Vassar, the library’s affable communications officer who, after a few years working as a legislative staffer, calls his current position “my all-time dream job.” . Adept at politics, he says, “I love looking at the minutes of old meetings and speeches. He also displays a serious enthusiasm for collecting state newspapers, many of which are a century or more old.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the institution is its services to the blind. Its library of braille and talking books serves the blind and people Knox-Jensen calls “print disabled” in 48 northern California counties. She says the library circulated more than 200,000 audio and braille books and descriptive videos in 2021, “and also made another 200,000 audiobook and magazine downloads available to eligible service customers.”

Among the articles that thrilled this visitor during two outings at the end of last month:

– Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ signed library card – in fact, “his handwritten ‘bio file’,” says Sue Tyson, head of the California history section at the library. It’s a small, double-sided piece of paper authenticating that he had visited the place as himself, and not as his alter ego, Mark Twain, although he already filled in dispatches under that name. for the Sacramento Union newspaper.

– A lovely color calfskin-bound version of “The Jumping Frog” by Mark Twain, one of only 20 copies produced. It features a pull-out drawer with woodcuts and artist proof prints, as well as the artist proof copy of the regular edition. The 1865 short story, more colloquially known as “The Famous Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” helped establish Twain’s formidable reputation as a journalist and humorist.

– An 1844 surveyor’s map of the Sacramento Valley, which shows parts of California that were under Mexican land grants. “Mapa del Valle del Sacramento,” a 17 x 23 ¼-inch hand-colored drawing, is considered “the earliest known depiction of the Sacramento Valley,” according to the late map historian Carl I. Wheat. This map was the model for one of the earliest maps of the Gold Rush region and would be used by the Northern California District Court to consider land claims.

– ‘A Pageant of Tradition’, a spectacular 1927 mural by Maynard Dixon, which, at 20 meters wide and 4 meters high, dominates one wall of the library’s largest reading room. Each side of the painting depicts people and events that influenced California history, including Spanish colonizers and priests, the Gold Rush and the Industrial Revolution.

When asked if they missed it when the library was in full swing with tours and lectures, Vassar and Knox-Jensen said it would reopen soon.

Jessica Knox-Jensen, head of the Office of State Library Services, has worked at the state archives for a decade and describes her day job as “heaven.”

“I love when the hallways and rooms are filled with people doing research or just reading for fun,” says Knox-Jensen. Vassar says the only visitors he feels “a little suspicious of are when we have, like, 200 third-graders coming at the same time.” He’s laughing. “Their attention span isn’t all you’d hope for. But it’s a wonderful experience for them, and as they grow, they’ll always know their state library is nearby and it’s free. And it really is theirs.


– While the California State Library has been semi-closed due to the pandemic, you can make an appointment to visit in person by phone at (916) 323-9843 or go online at

– In addition to downtown Sacramento, the State Library has a branch in San Francisco: the Sutro Library, located on the 5th and 6th floors of the J. Paul Leonard Library at San Francisco State University. It contains over 90,000 rare books, as well as one of the largest genealogy collections west of Salt Lake City.

– In addition to serious scholars and history buffs, the library regularly sees lawyers and paralegals using its vast “stacks” of law books (collection).

Do you know a unique story, events, people or places to share with us in The Back Story? Email us at


Comments are closed.