Paper Tiger 

Libraries around the country may be discarding books and newsprint at an alarming rate, but Bill Sturm's Oakland History Room remains a proud exception.

While paging through a book on buried treasure, I glance across the library table and see a man who once threatened to shoot me.

He is hunched over a pile of yellowed newspaper clippings, and when he looks my way nothing registers in his eyes. He gazes back down at the pile. Which is good. Because it was very recently that he threatened to shoot me, and you'd think I'd be fresh in his memory. But then again, the time he threatened to shoot me was the first and last time, until now, he ever saw me.

Scratching his head, he lays his clippings on the table in a certain order. They are just too far away for me to read the headlines. He alters the order. Fusses. Frowns. Alters it again.

Through the west-facing windows, downtown Oakland shines against cottonball clouds. Rooftops, flags and fire escapes, a distant dome, red brick and Deco flourishes defy the viewer to assign this scene an exact date: if you squint, you miss the skyscrapers.

Which is only fitting for a window in the Oakland Public Library's Oakland History Room, where two days from now I have an appointment to meet William Sturm, the librarian who has shepherded this vast and arcane collection since 1978. Sturm will retire next month.

Today, though, as wands of sunlight loll across the blond wood of the table, I very, very coolly close Queen of the Comstock and lay it on top of Tales the Tombstones Tell. The man who threatened to shoot me has carried his clippings to the copy machine and is dropping coins into the slot. I take this opportunity to flee. You might urge me to stay, to simply choose a farther table, say it's a free country and why let yourself be driven from a public building, a quiet building, a repository of knowledge and peace?

But if time teaches anything--the very time this very room records--it is that history is wars and firestorms and coups but also every little thing that happens every day. That history is you. And me.

And him.

Two days later, enroute back to the library, I watch a huge group of mid-morning exercisers at the edge of Chinatown. On a sprawling cement courtyard, the mostly middle-aged practitioners move to the sound of wordless, almost martial music that churns from a speaker. What they're doing seems too fast for regular tai chi: they flop their sweatered arms up and back, right, left. That there are so many of them, all doing the same thing in the same place at the same time, their faces earnest, is history too--someone's, which fits in somewhere, as much as a Roman chariot race or the Human Be-In.

From the library's side entrance on Oak Street, looking northeast, Oakland again looks lost in time. Lake Merritt is a mirror, the slow rise behind it lined with apartment complexes the pink and cream of after-dinner mints. The hills behind them, studded with palm trees and pines, waver in the mist like transparencies. From this vantage point you can look kindlier on Oakland than from other ones: face it, this is a city as renowned worldwide, justly or not, for blight and homicide as for Mother's Cookies and the Raiders. All history can do is happen. It remains for later generations to sift what they want from it, if anything at all.

Sturm is wiry with a shock of reddish hair, looking as you might imagine Huck Finn would a few years after rafting down the river --though not all that many years. His voice is soft as he pushes an elevator button, rides to the second floor, and glides down the silent corridor he has plied for nearly 25 years; the hallway is lined along one side with vintage black-and-white photographs. In the room whose depth and eclecticism, whose very soul, owes so much to him, he stands under a massive aerial photograph of the East Bay, its shoreline bespeaking not pleasure beaches but business. Old-fashioned wooden card files, dark with the oil of countless hands, rear up all over the room like ships' hulls.

"You never know," Sturm says, "what a patron is going to want."

The building in which we stand, Oakland's main library, opened in January, 1951. Earlier it had occupied a site at 14th and Grove, which--as the nation's second-oldest public library, serving a population that swelled by a third between 1940 and 1950--it duly outgrew. Photos taken at the opening-day ceremony show a crowd in fur coats and film-noirish hats jostling for a better view of the pale, square structure. America was still savoring the newness of peace and all the pleasure it promised. What better embodiment of faith in the future than a brand-new library?

Even then, Oakland's library had a distinct sense of its city's significance. As early as 1894, a city directory was already touting the library's dedication to "filing and indexing for reference all pamphlets, leaflets and printed papers of local interest, and such programs of public occasions and other documents and contributions to current history of the city of Oakland as may be of use in forming the basis of a local history collection." A succession of librarians took charge of the collection; when the new building opened in 1951, its "California Room" encompassed state history in general and Oakland history in particular. When Sturm's predecessor Frances Buxton announced that she was going to retire in 1978, "they were looking for someone to take over," he says now. "I was asked if I'd be interested."

A graduate of the UC Berkeley Library School and an Oakland native with a lifelong interest in the city's history, he was a shoo-in.

"I said, 'Sure.'" He shrugs. "It was simple, really."


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