Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Oakland librarian collects ephemera left behind


Sharon McKellar, who has an assortment of the found items, sits at the reference desk of the Oakland main library on Dec. 16. The library has collected an assortment of notes, pictures, homework assignments and strange bookmarks left in borrowed books over the years. Brant Ward/San Francisco Chronicle photo

From page A6 | January 05, 2014 |

By Will Kane
Nobody knows how long the story of yearning and regret, hope and romance had been hidden away inside a book at the Oakland library, but there it was — a melancholy slice of two lives — spelled out on yellowed paper.

“Remember, I love u sweetheart,” said the blunt pencil lettering on the back side of an old flier. “The past is the past, so let’s not Take it home with us. I just want to love u, and be happy.”

For decades librarians at Oakland’s main library have collected the scraps of paper ephemera left behind in returned books, shoved into nooks in the library shelves or secretly slipped to librarians.

The collection ranges from half-done to-do lists to childish notes about gossip and crushes passed in the hush of the library children’s room. There are letters of adult love and tragic scrawlings of lonely longing, perhaps used as bookmarks in pulpy romance novels.

The stories in the scraps are known only to the people who left them behind. Some notes are found on the floor or tables of the library at the end of the day. Others are found when librarians thin the collection of books or check in returned items.

Generally, the librarians have no idea who wrote the notes, when they stuck them into a book or even if they were intentionally left behind.

“It is just these looks into people’s personalities, people’s lives, what other people hold dear,” said Sharon McKellar, the keeper of the library’s collection. “That’s the piece of it that draws me in.”

Popular posts
McKellar, who has worked for the library since 2003, and her colleagues have been collecting the items for years, but McKellar only recently started posting them to the library’s blog, where they are among the most popular posts.

A to-do list on a yellow Post-it found in a book years ago contains a list of tasks: “schedule Jonathan,” followed by “prescription eye gels,” and “day: Linden. night: Betty? Sunday: Royland.”

But the list’s author apparently was too busy to “buy hay/pluot tree” or get “Body Time, vit A&E moisturizer,” according to the note.

Another list had one seemingly important item still uncompleted: “get unemployment.”

McKellar, an avid to-do-list keeper herself, said she finds these lists of what is completed or left undone a thrilling window into a stranger’s life.

“That’s why some of the ones that are the most boring-seeming are the most interesting to me,” McKellar said. “It is such an insight into that person’s personality.”

Glen Berger, a New York playwright who wrote “Under the Lintel,” a 2001 play about a librarian using similar scraps to investigate the story of a book returned 113 years overdue, said old handwritten notes are a kind of portal into the past, a thrilling glimpse at a moment in time.

“There’s something about the connection to another person long ago that you get when you find a book in the library, when you find this piece of paper left behind, probably an ad hoc bookmark,” Berger said.

“I am always struck that I am not the first person to have had hands on this book,” he said. “This other person has had a life and they have stuck something in this book.”

Nina Lindsay, the supervising children’s librarian, said she has been collecting bits of childhood left behind at the library for decades. She was touched by one note that captured the back-and-forth between two girls.

“Cheyenne is mean,” wrote one girl.

“No she’s not serene,” wrote another.

“She is mean to me. Do you hate me?”

“Not really.”

Another Post-it found in the children’s section in 2009 asks, in Spanish: “Are you my friend?” The boxes for “yes,” “no” or “maybe” are all blank.

“Kids aren’t always as honest with adults as they are with each other,” Lindsay said.

She pointed out a child’s drawing of a fairy godmother found tucked into the shelves. “Fairy god mothers really do exist,” a dreamy young visitor had written.

“I felt like that was a kids’ really genuine reaction to something they read in a book,” Lindsay said.

Perplexing postcard
The most compelling library scraps, she said, are both beautiful and perplexing, like the black-and-white postcard/bookmark of a couple embracing.

“Lynn,” the note from Frank on the back of the postcard begins, “this picture always makes me think of love and that always makes me think of you.”

But Frank seems both conflicted and moved by the warmth of the pictured couple’s embrace.

“They seem to have a couple habits we no longer share, but the most strong we certainly do — because I love you. Happy Valentines Day.”

The intrigue and mystery of the note is thrilling, McKellar said.

“You don’t know who used this as a bookmark, Frank or Lynn,” McKellar said. “Was their romance dead and this meant nothing, or did it mean a lot and they wanted to always have it with them?”

— Reach Will Kane at



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