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27 January 2020

CGS Member Perks: A Visit to the Oakland Library History Room

Photos by Kathy Ikeda and Jennifer Dix

Librarian Dorothy Lazard in the Oakland History Room

One of the many perks that come with being a member of the California Genealogical Society is getting to go on special members-only outings every year. On January 23, a group of us got a close-up look at the Oakland Public Library’s historical and genealogical holdings. The delightful Dorothy Lazard, principal librarian at the Oakland History Room, gave us an introduction to the library’s rich trove of books and artifacts.

The History Room holds numerous documents that could prove invaluable for local genealogical research. These include bound volumes of Oakland birth and death certificates from 1870 to 1904, records of the West Oakland Home orphanage, Oakland Police arrest records from 1877 to 1912, indexes to vital records and cemeteries in several other counties, numerous old photos, and much more. For details, check out the old-fashioned card catalog, housed in good old wooden storage drawers (the library catalog is also online).

The library has some very detailed resources for property research in the Map Room. Dorothy passed around the oversized “Block Books,” tax assessment records showing owners’ names block by block. They also have a finely detailed Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, which showed the footprint of buildings and recorded physical details such as building material, number of floors, whether it has a basement, etc. Dorothy showed us that by backlighting pages, you may detect previous structures that were pasted over during later surveys.

Looking at the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map in the Map Room
Dorothy demonstrates how backlighting may reveal
earlier elements of the map

Dorothy gave us a brief overview of Oakland’s history. West Oakland is the original core of the city that was incorporated as Oakland in 1854. It grew quickly over the next half century and by 1909 was the second largest city in California. We got a rundown on the origins of the annexed districts: for example, Brooklyn was originally settled by Mormons and named for the ship that brought the settlers from New York in 1854; the San Antonio neighborhood takes its name from the old Peralta family ranch. The glass display case in the History Room is used for rotating exhibits. Currently it showcases Oakland’s final annexation in 1909, when the city came to encompass Claremont, Fruitvale, Dimond, Fitchburg, Beulah, Melrose and Elmhurst districts.

While only a fraction of the library's historical collection is available online, there's still a lot to see. Go to the library's home page and click on "Oakland History Online" to start exploring. Our thanks to Dorothy Lazard for the wonderful tour and to Jane Lindsey for organizing the event. Our next two outings are coming up soon! Click on the names below for more information:

Feb. 25: Field Trip to the California Historical Society

All smiles after an informative and enjoyable visit!

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