The mid- and late-19th-century Californian thought big, even when it came to libraries. Because there was no immediate precedent to follow, individuals reached for something almost Renaissance in their desire to expand, to build where nothing comparable existed. Their manner mingled the brash, the prescient, and the innocent. The scale, grand and comprehensive, certainly was also personal. This passion, allied to an objective enterprise, characterizes much of the enduring northern California quality of life and a zest of mind apparent to resident or visitor. This certitude and faith have made such resources as the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley, a lasting benefit to the independent researcher and to the diverse scholarly disciplines.
James D. Hart, director of the Bancroft and author of the ''Oxford Companion to American Literature,'' exemplifies this lively largess of spirit as he discusses the current and future implications of archival collecting. A tall, white-haired, and genially handsome figure, Mr. Hart directs current collecting to augment the existing archival emphasis at the Bancroft, ''keeping an eye on studies present and future on the Berkeley campus.''
Hart, who became director in 1969, is acquiring papers and memorabilia of contemporary writers, especially of the Bay Area and the West. But collecting is not limited to the Western United States. There is a substantial record of William Faulkner. ''We have the best collection outside of Germany on Hermann Hesse. Tom Stoppard, the playwright of 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern' and 'The Real Thing,' has given us the manuscript of a play he hasn't had published or produced. We also have the archives of San Francisco's Magic Theater, with which Sam Shepard's name has been so closely linked.''
The Bancroft Library was started by Hubert Howe Bancroft, a pioneer San Francisco stationer and bookseller, in 1859. (Bancroft's firm, incorporated in 1856, is the forerunner of Bancroft-Whitney, still a notable specialist in legal publishing.)
The initial library grew from about 75 volumes, concerning California and the West, to a big private collection, housed in a brick structure in the Mission District. The University of California acquired it in 1905 and moved it to Berkeley just after the 1906 earthquake and fire. It now constitutes 300,000 volumes, 2 million photographs and other pictures, and 35 million manuscripts on almost all subjects.
California was the core of Bancroft's initial collecting as documentation for the histories he wrote. But his reasoning soon embraced the Mexican, Spanish, and native Indian ancestry of the Golden State. To quote Bancroft, it ''finally became settled in my mind to make the western half of North America my field, including in it the whole of Mexico and Central America.''
This passion, laced with tact, made possible the acquisition of the personal papers of Gen. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, a great name in Mexican-California history. Vallejo's involvement made possible the acquisition of the memoirs of other Californios. Where Bancroft was unable to purchase archival materials, he arranged to have them copied, anticipating the microfilming program started in 1948 under the directorship of Prof. George P. Hammond. An oral-history program augments these records.
Under George Hammond's directorship the Friends of the Bancroft Library was formed in 1946. Its program provides for the four exhibitions each year both in its gallery and in the main library.
On display is the nugget found at Sutter's Mill in 1848, triggering the worldwide flood of gold-seekers to California, and the brass plate found near San Quentin which the library no longer considers a genuine memento of Sir Francis Drake.
''We collect in an uneven pattern with the aid of many small funds, many of them prescribed in their usage,'' Hart observed. ''Our state funding has not increased over the years, and it certainly doesn't buy what it used to. Many of our collections are donated. University faculty members are not paid for their papers. We also serve as the archives for the Board of Regents and appropriate systemwide materials for the nine campuses.''
The emphasis on writers of the West ranges from comprehensive collections of Mark Twain and Bret Harte through Jack London and William Saroyan to Maxine Hong Kingston, Joan Didion, Josephine Miles, and Wright Morris. ''We have papyrus fragments of Greek texts, including Sophocles, recorded 600 years after his time , and the first four folios of Shakespeare. Our emphasis on theater and typography joins the multi-talents of MacArthur fellow Adrian Wilson, who started printing in San Francsico with the old Interplayers troupe. We also emphasize the history of science and technology, mainly of northern California, and will display a sampling of our contemporary writers' collection in June.''
Clearly, the openness and earnest spirit behind Bancroft's original library is alive and well.