The Unseen Library

The Unseen Library

Since its founding in 1893, Long Beach Public Library has gathered many items, not just books.  Seen as the “keeper” of Long Beach history before there was a Historical Society, many residents and organization, not sure what to do with items, donated them to the Long Beach Collection at the Main Library.

Many may not be familiar with this collection, which includes not only books by local authors, city directories and school annuals, but other items. For instance, when the Veteran’s Memorial Building, a landmark in the city since 1937, was demolished in 1978, the library received many interesting items including a Civil War sword. Overseeing the Long Beach Collection, I was amazed to find a cardboard box from the Memorial Building with one word on the outside “limb.” Not sure what I would find, I cautiously opened it hoping it wasn’t a human limb, and burst out laughing. It was a limb of a tree with a bullet in it. Inside was a note saying this limb saved the life of a Civil War soldier!


Gabriela Mistral. Source: Wikipedia

Sometimes the library was given items the City didn’t know what to do with, such as the bust of Chilean poet, and Nobel Prize winner, Gabriela Mistral. Mistral, the pseudonym for Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga, took her name from the Archangel Gabriel and the fierce mistral wind that blows in the south of France. She was the first Latin American to be honored with the Nobel Prize for literature in 1945. Though her poetry made her famous, she continued to teach, write poetry and also represent Chile at international conferences. At one point she was the Chilean consul in California and helped form the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. The bronze bust, by sculptor G. Purce was given to the City from Long Beach’s sister city of Valparaiso, Chile.

Source: Author

The bust’s arrival, and Mayor Tom Clark’s trip to Valparaiso, Chile, a country then ruled by a military junta, brought pickets outside City Hall who protested the mayor’s trip. The Chilean consul general was scheduled to present the bust to Mayor Clark in November 1977, and be displayed at City Hall, but city officials said the ceremony was suddenly postponed because the bust couldn’t clear customs. Instead, the bust was delivered to City Librarian Frances Henselman, a few hours after the November 22nd ceremony had been scheduled. City officials claimed postponing the ceremony, or where the bust should reside, had nothing to do with the protest or the fact that Chile’s dictator, Augusto Pinochet (who ruled Chile from 1973-1990), presented Mistral as a symbol of “submission to the authority” and “social order.”  Pinochet would have been surprised that his view of her as a saint-like celibate would be challenged. Later, others would contend she was a lesbian, after the letters she wrote to longtime associate Doris Dana were published in 2007. Mistral would die in January 1957, at age 67, with Doris Dana by her side.

The bust was placed near the library’s administrative offices, and staff were often asked about what many referred to as “the woman with the hairy chest.” Nothing could be found about the sculptor, G. Purce, but most agreed his sculpture did not do justice to such a great woman. When the library was remodeled the bust was moved to the Long Beach Collection storage room, where it served as a door stop.

Long Beach Collection librarian Jeff Whalen, assures me the bust is still in the collection, in the Administration offices of the new Billie Jean King Main Library.  You might want to stop by and take a look. Jeff has also located the Civil War sword, but no luck on the “limb.”