Library Helps Latinos and Others Digitize History

Nicky Trasvina goes through old family photos. Photo by Andra Cernavskis

On Saturday afternoon, Susan Goldstein, the City of San Francisco’s archivist, could be found in the San Francisco Public Library’s fifth floor DIGI Center, a room for digital archiving, pouring over old, print photos with Alejandra Palos, a woman ready to donate some of her father’s photos.

Manuel Palos,  an architectural sculptor,  worked on projects throughout the city including the restoration of the Legion of Honor’s eight mythological creature sculptures and the ornamentation on the Neiman Marcus building downtown.  Palos,  a Mexican immigrant, came to San Francisco in 1966 to work as a mold maker for the Palace of Fine Arts. Despite his lack of professional experience,  the lead sculptor recognized his talent and took him under his wing. Palos continued to worker as a mold maker while sculpting on the side. He eventually made enough money to take a three-week trip to Italy every year for 20 years to study sculpting and in 1984, he opened his own sculpting business, Manuel Palos Sculpture.

Now that her father is 78, Palos wants to document his life, which is why she seized on the opportunity to bring the collection of photos and documents to the DIGI Center, which ran a free-of-charge, drop-in event as part the San Francisco Latino Heritage Fair.

It was the first time the DIGI Center, which officially opened at the main branch in January, has hosted an event like this for the public at their new central location. The goal on Saturday was to help Latinos publicly document and digitize their family’s history in San Francisco.

“We are trying to do a lot more outreach about digitizing and making it a core library service,” Goldstein said as she held a black and white image of Palos with a classical human sculpture.

DIGI-Center-close-up-for-webThose who work at the DIGI Center decided to open their services to the public during the afternoon portion of the fair, which also featured seminars on how to preserve old photographs and how to organize digital documents and photos.

Palos, who grew up in Bernal Heights, heard about the fair through the San Francisco Latino Historical Society, one of the groups that organized the day’s events. She became emotional while explaining the content of the photographs to Goldstein.

“I almost want to cry…I thought I just really needed to jump on this,” she said to Goldstein.

Meanwhile, Nicky Trasvina was sitting at another table with Christina Moretta, the San Francisco Public Library’s photo curator. They were looking through photos of Trasvina’s parents, brother, and son.

There’s a photo of her father and mother, who immigrated to San Francisco in 1915 and 1930 respectively, at a restaurant in North Beach.

“When my father came, he lived in the Western Addition,” Trasvina said. “But most Latinos lived in North Beach then.”

She also had a picture of her father, who worked as radio broadcaster on Treasure Island for channels that reached Latin America. It was taken at the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco that Moretta thought might be from the 1920s.

“I’ve been planning on this for a long time,” Trasvina said of the digital archiving process. “It’s such great work they are doing. We have so much history in our family that we now have a venue to bring it to other people’s attention.”

Trasvina has a 1981 booklet from The Newcomer High School in which there is a picture of her mother as the vice principal. Then, there is a photo of her brother on a pony.  He is now dean at University of San Francisco’s law school.  In fact, the San Francisco Public Library as an entire series of such kitschy, souvenir photos of young children dressed in cowboy attire on miniature ponies often on the sidewalks outside of their homes.

The process of digitizing the print photos is quite simple. First, the donor goes through their photos with one of the archivists. They help establish which photos might be most worthy of digitizing as the limit is set to ten. Then, each photo goes into a scanner which takes between five to ten minutes to scan each image depending on the size and desired resolution.

By the end of the day, four people, including Palos and Trasvina, had contributed to the archive and signed waivers to allow their images to be available to the public over the library’s online photo archive, which already has over 40,000 historical images related to San Francisco.

When it appeared that no more people would pay the room a visit for the day, Goldstein and Mike Levy, the scanning technician and specialist of the San Francisco Public Library, flipped through the now digitized images. A few photos containing Jesse Jackson and Cesar Chavez flashed across the computer screen.

Eva Royale, a longtime activist in the Mission who currently organizes the Cesar Chavez Parade and Festival, donated the two photos of each historical personality. She took all but one of the photos, which features Chavez standing with Dolores Huerta and Fred Ross in 1990 and that she had saved from the San Francisco Chronicle.

In one of the photos, Chavez can be seen eating a piece of cake.

“That was taken at San Francisco State on March, 30, 1990,” Royale, once the local manager of the United Farm Workers’ San Francisco Office, later explained. “His birthday is March 31st, so in one of the photos he has cake at a reception that was put on for him.”

The photos of Jesse Jackson are from Royale’s time as a volunteer for Latinos for Jackson when he ran for President in the 1980s.

“My purpose of bringing these photos is to show that Latinos in San Francisco are involved in workers issues, community issues, voter registration, and get out the vote, and working to empower the community to make changes in their community. As we see today, this is very badly needed…Latinos are becoming an endangered species in the Mission,” Royale said.

In one of her images, Jackson is standing beside Sam Ruiz, the current executive director of Mission Neighborhood Centers, and Rosario Anaya, the current executive director of the Mission Language and Vocational School. In the other, he is with Mario Obledo, a Latino civil rights leader and founder of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, at a voter registration event.

Royale said that she has many more photos and documents left to donate and hopes the DIGI Center opens its doors to the public again.

“This isn’t going to be in your history books or at the library, and it’s important that we tell our own history. It’s more important to me than my personal day-to-day life. What makes life important is being involved and helping make change,” she said.

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One Comment

  1. BJ

    the writer forgot to mention that the Latino Heritage Fair was an effort by SF Library, SF Latino Historical Society, SF Heritage, Digital Project and Story Corp. This is one of many efforts by the San Francisco Latino Historical Society to document Latinos contributions to the development of San Francisco. Our members brought their fotos. On November 15, SFLHS in partnership with SF Heritage will collect the Latino LGBT history. Check facebook and website for more information.

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