Editor's note: Each week Robrt L. Pela writes about the people and places that define Phoenix.
A woman named Tasia was sitting in the Arizona Room of Burton Barr Central Library last Thursday, reading about old Phoenix buildings. “It’s because I’m on the bus a lot,” she explained. “And I look out the window at a building and I think, ‘What is that place?’ I ask my grandma, and she don’t know. I ask my ma, and she don’t know.”
Tasia slapped a stack of history books.
“So I come here and here’s all these books that tell me what each of the places is.”
Tasia was proud to say she’s been coming to the Arizona Room for 18 years. She likes how the room was both cozy and wide open, with lots of glass and chrome and blue carpeting. “It used to be on the fourth floor,” she whispered. “It didn’t look this cool then.”
“We have regulars,” said Lee Franklin, Burton Barr’s community relations manager. “People who come here just to be surrounded by local history.” She smiled at Tasia and pointed to the copy of Vanishing Phoenix she was reading. “That’s a good book,” she said.
“I know, right?” Tasia replied.
“You can go down a lot of rabbit holes researching things here,” Franklin said. She offered Barry Goldwater’s freshman yearbook for a visitor to see, then opened a book of handwritten musical compositions by Arizona composers, all written in pencil. The Arizona Room collects everything from Pueblo Indian paintings to a book of poetry by late B-movie queen Acquanetta.
People want to stay home and Google things, Franklin said. “But there’s no depth of knowledge in doing that. At a library, we help you find vetted research. We offer traditional physical materials to augment what’s available online.”
A Native American man named Larry laughed at a sign that read “Pencils only.” He said he was there to learn more about his mother and father, who each came from different tribes. They never talked about the trouble that had caused, Larry said, or about life on the reservation.
“But I can kind of feel them here,” he said. “They’re in these books, all the stories they didn’t tell me themselves are somewhere in these shelves. I know they are.”
A lot of connecting with past history went on in this room, Franklin said. “You can touch and smell and feel the heft of that history here.”
The single most requested item is the McClintock files, a collection of correspondence, photographs, and newspaper clippings documenting the life of newspaperman and Rough Rider James H. McClintock. It’s the collection that launched the Arizona Room nearly 40 years ago.
“It includes letters from Theodore Roosevelt,” Franklin said. “It’s one of the only things where we ask people to put gloves on before they handle it.”
She seemed proudest of the Arizona Room’s collection of old yearbooks from Arizona high schools. “We don’t have every single one,” she confided. A yearbook isn’t something you’d think a library would keep, but if you want to look at teenage hairstyles from 1983, you can come here and we can show you.”
Sometimes people just show up with boxes of stuff they want to donate. “We find a place for everything, one way or another,” Franklin sighed. “Almost nothing gets dumped. We either keep it or we help it move along to another life.”
The most recent acquisition was a collection of vintage Phoenix picture postcards, donated by a city employee who’d collected them for decades. Franklin is waiting for City Council approval to accept the collection, valued at more than $25,000.
No one ever asked to ring the giant Soleri bells that flank the entrance to the Arizona Room, a librarian named Louis said. “Sometimes we ring them after the library is closed,” Franklin admitted. “Parts of the library are a little more raucous than others. We’re not the shushing place that we used to be.”
A librarian named Tom remembered a couple who came in to research the ghosts that haunted their house. “They used city directories to figure out who had lived there before them,” he explained. “They read each person’s obituary to figure out which ones sounded most like their ghosts.”
More often, visitors wanted to know about living people. “You’d be surprised to know how many people have famous figures in their family,” Tom said with a laugh. “They come here and show us photographs of celebrities. ‘This is my half-sister.’”
A lot of out-of-town visitors asked for maps to the Lost Dutchman’s gold mine, Franklin said. Today a man named Bob was interested in Arizona Republic articles published in 1968 about the time Sonny and Cher were in Phoenix, making a movie. The Arizona Room had a whole folder of these articles.
Bob read the articles about Sonny and Cher, then thumbed through a Phoenix Yellow Pages directory from 1973.
“I used to go to this burger joint when I was in high school,” he told another Arizona Room visitor. “Damned if I can remember the name of it. But it’s here in this book, somewhere, and I’m going to find it.”