Q&A: An archivist steeped in San Francisco history

Name: Susan Goldstein
Age: 55
City: Berkeley
Position: City archivist at San Francisco Public Library

J.: Where did you grow up and what is your Jewish background?

Susan Goldstein: I grew up in Los Angeles, I’m a Valley Girl. I had a Reform bat mitzvah and was confirmed; I lived a typical L.A. Reform life. Now we belong to Congregation Beth El, where my son was bar mitzvahed a few years ago.


Susan Goldstein

J.: You’re the archivist for the city and county of San Francisco. What does one study to become an archivist?

SG: I was really interested in history so I studied that as an undergraduate, and then I went to library school at U.C. Berkeley. Being an archivist is the perfect blending of history and the library. Library school has changed a lot now; now it’s much more computerized. I met my husband at library school; he’s a librarian at Diablo Valley College.

J.: Did you always know that that was what you wanted to do?

SG: I was a community organizer when I first got out of college. After library school, I got a job working for Sen. Alan Cranston. I was his archivist for three years, working part time in Washington, D.C., and part time here. There were thousands of boxes and I worked with the staff deciding what should be saved. That collection is now at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. Then I got a master’s degree in history at U.C. Santa Barbara, and in the middle of that, I worked for San Francisco State’s labor archive. I got this job right after and have been here 19 years.

I see this as an extension of community organizing, in that it’s doing outreach to the community and collecting people’s materials; it’s not just having stuff come to you, passively waiting … It’s seeing what stories there are in the community. It serves as community memory.

J.: San Francisco has such an interesting history. Are there any Jewish collections in the archive?

SG: We have a few things, mainly a lot of newspapers. There was the Hebrew and the Weekly Gleaner, both from the 1850s and the Jewish Times and Observer from 1892 to 1911. Some of these are digitized, so they’re on our website. We also have some annual reports from Pacific Hebrew Orphans Society in 1910 and also the Federation of Jewish Charities from the turn of the last century. We also have a book called “War Orphan” by Phyllis Mattson. She came from Europe during the war as a teenager and lived in foster homes. We also have some original letters that she wrote to her parents.
J.: Which collections are most popular with the public?

SG: Speaking of Jewish collections, Harvey Milk’s papers are used constantly. A lot of researchers come for our big city collections like that of the S.F. Unified School District. The photograph collection from the Department of Public Works shows the rebuilding of the city after the 1906 earthquake. A lot of high school and S.F. State students come to see the hippie collections, things about love-ins or social protests or The Oracle, which was published in the Haight. It always makes me laugh when students come in saying they want to look at stuff that’s “really old” and they mean the Beats or the ’60s. We’re currently collecting fliers and other such memorabilia from the Occupy movement.
J.:  Tell me about a collection that is your personal favorite that few people know about.

SG: Paul Radin studied ethnic groups moving to San Francisco during the Great Depression. As part of a federal relief program, researchers went out to do interviews. As a social historian, it’s fascinating to learn about all the people who came here and why, and how it was for them to find work.

Also from the AIDS ward, 5A and 5B at San Francisco General Hospital. It’s a very moving collection, from when the AIDS crisis was starting to happen. Nurses filled out books about what was going on in the ward as people realized this epidemic was happening. This is a great example of how something you think of as a government record can be incredibly moving, [telling] a story.

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Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."