Author mines the riches of the Bancroft Library

Few people know the mysteries of the Bancroft Library as well as Susan Snyder.

As public services coordinator for the past 20 years, Snyder has spent countless hours scouring the stacks to retrieve material for patrons. She has helped researchers locate obscure letters, tracked down elusive photographs, and occasionally stumbled upon artifacts that had largely been forgotten.

The deep knowledge of the library that has more than 650,000 books, 35,000 linear feet of archival documents and 8 million photographs linear inspired Snyder to do her own history projects. In the past few years, she has written or co-authored a number of books that highlight some of the more whimsical and fun parts of the Bancroft and provide a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people. There was the book Bear in Mind, on all the grizzly bear images and the one about camping, cleverly called Past Tents. (You can see she has a knack for titles, too.)

“We have so much in Bancroft that is anonymous history, the stuff of everyday life that people don’t usually consider worthy of reporting,” said Snyder. “I like having that stuff out in the light of day.”

Now, right in time for Christmas and Hanukkah, Heyday Books and the Bancroft have co-published two new books by Snyder, including one that Oprah Winfrey named a Book of the Week in late November. The other appeals to dog lovers.


Before there was blogging, tweeting, Facebook, and even photography, people kept journals that they decorated with drawings. In Beyond Words: 200 Years of Illustrated Diaries, Snyder has pulled together 55 journal entries spanning 200 years from people both famous and little known. These are people’s most intimate thoughts and drawings, astonishing in their candor because they thought they were done for themselves.

This is what Oprah had to say about Beyond Words:

“Why it’s not just dry history: People tend to be honest, revealing and even funny when they’re talking to themselves and drawing for themselves—without thinking of who may read or see their work. Consider Issac Baker who describes his voyages in 1849 as a sailor (complete with colorful cartoons of him spitting up seawater and carousing with the captain) or William Voigt the depression-era magician who wrote a guide to his own tricks, complete with step-by-step drawings. Our favorite: the dazzling, free-spirited Jean Margaret Hill who hitchhiked around Europe in the early 1970s, exploring drugs and free love, sketching the strangers and fellow travelers she met along the way, and asking some surprisingly challenging questions like “Does my loneliness glow five hundred meters? Is it a strange magnet for so many vague individuals? Is this the only warmth I have?”

Susan Snyder

Snyder’s other book, written with Mary Scott, graphic designer for the Doe and Moffitt libraries at UC Berkeley, is really a birthday calendar. It’s called Everyday Dogs and it features fabulous pictures of people with their beloved canines. There is a photo of Gertrude Stein with Basket, her white poodle, media titan William Randolph Hearst with his dachshund, Helen, in front of one of his magnificent fountains at San Simeon, and one of John Muir with California Stickeen, the dog that accompanied him on many hikes through Alaska. Some of the photos are informal shots. Others were taken in a studio. All of the photos show a strong connection between human and canine.

Judy Garland with her dog from Everyday Dogs

“Some of them just yank your heart out because you can feel the connection between the two,” said Snyder.

Snyder’s next project: a perpetual calendar of cats.