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Images of catastrophe, a century on
The Bancroft Library, celebrating its own centennial, limns the faults in the earth, the stars, and ourselves with '1906: The Great Quake - The History of a Disaster'

12 January 2006

topkey  Slide show : "1906: The Great Quake"

San Francisco's great earthquake and fire struck on April 18, 1906, and the Bancroft Library, then located on Valencia Street, was the city's only major library to survive the devastation.

In commemoration, the Bancroft - which was acquired by the University of California in 1905, and celebrates its official centennial this year as well - will feature a new exhibit, "1906: The Great Quake - The History of a Disaster," from Wednesday, Jan. 11, through April 5. On display will be the Library's own photos, ephemera, manuscripts, and more, telling the dramatic story of the disaster and its aftermath, whose impacts reached across the bay to the Berkeley campus.

The Bancroft will also preview a new digital archive featuring 17,000 images and 10,000 pages of written material relating to the earthquake. The collection, from which the images on this page were selected, was assembled by the Bancroft with partners including the State Library and the California Historical Society. It will be available to the public starting Jan. 18 at bancroft.berkeley.edu/collections/earthquakeandfire.

Both the campus exhibit and the digital archive reflect similar themes: the ostentatious wealth of pre-quake San Francisco; how civic corruption, poor construction, and racism affected responses to the earthquake and the fires that burned unchecked for three days; and reconstruction efforts. Both also feature first-hand accounts of the tragedy that affected residents throughout Northern California.

In the wake of such recent calamities as Hurricane Katrina - the largest urban disaster in the United States since the '06 quake - the exhibit carries a special resonance.

After the temblor hit, student cadets from Berkeley were dispatched to San Francisco to help patrol the streets, fight fires, prevent looting, and maintain order in food lines. Among the emergency clinics and tent cities set up for victims was one on an athletic field adjacent to what is now Hearst Gymnasium.

"It wasn't just San Francisco's earthquake, it was a lot of people's earthquake," says Theresa Salazar, curator of the Bancroft's Collection of Western Americana and the exhibit's co-curator with Dylan Esson, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Berkeley.

The exhibit also notes the contributions of Andrew Cowper Lawson, a professor of geology and anthropology here whose photographs documented the ruptured San Andreas fault line all the way to Fort Ross, in Mendocino County. Lawson also chaired the State Earthquake Investigation Commission, and prepared the most complete report ever published on a major earthquake.

Fittingly, the Bancroft is currently housed in temporary quarters during seismic retrofitting of its permanent home in the Doe Library annex. The exhibit is on display at the Bernice Layne Brown Gallery of Doe Library.