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From the Stacks 

January 6, 2014

Archives Unboxed: Ynes Mexia.

The archives at the California Academy of Sciences hold the life’s work of many amazing scientists and naturalists.  While recently undertaking a survey of our photograph collection, I had the chance to revisit the work of a true pioneer, Ynes Mexia.

Ms. Mexia was a fiercely independent botanist who traveled through the taxing wilderness of South America, Mexico, and Alaska in search of plant specimens from the mid-1920s through the late 1930s. Mexia was often only accompanied by hired guides and carried what she could in order to sustain her and more importantly, to support her work gathering specimens. Like many of the plants she was so fond of, Ynes Mexia was a bit of a late bloomer.

Portrait of Ynes Mexia

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Ynes Mexia © California Academy of Sciences.
“Young Black-headed Grosbeak.”
Portrait of Ynes Mexia, ca. 1921.

Ynes was born in Washington DC in 1870. When her parents separated in 1879, Ynes moved with her mother and attended schools in Philadelphia, Toronto, and Maryland.   After her compulsory education was complete, she was sent to live with her father in Mexico where she would manage his estate and eventually inherited the family ranching business. Mexia made a life for herself in Mexico for nearly 30 years but after two unhappy marriages and a nervous breakdown, she moved to San Francisco to strike out on her own and discover her true passion, botany.  In 1917, Mexia joined the Sierra Club and she participated in hikes exploring the California landscapes where she became deeply involved with conservation efforts to preserve the Redwoods. At age 51, Mexia enrolled as a special student at the University of California at Berkeley. If you think a 51 year old enrolling in University is uncommon now, you can only imagine how anomalous it was in 1921 when Mexia enrolled! Nevertheless, Mexia’s spirit for learning and eagerness to participate in university expeditions introduced her to botanical collecting, which kindled a fire inside of Mexia that she had not previously known. Around this time, Mexia also formed a friendship with renowned California Academy of Sciences botanist, Alice Eastwood. Eastwood proved to be a great mentor and Mexia joined her on collecting trips throughout California.

Mexia, Ynes, 1870-1938

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Ynes Mexia © California Academy of Sciences.
“Bringing home the specimens.”
Contra Costa County (Calif.), 1923.

Mexia, Ynes, 1870-1938

Click to view the image larger in a new window.
Ynes Mexia © California Academy of Sciences.
“Nest and eggs of Spurred Towhee.” ca.1923.

In 1925, Mexia was invited to join an expedition bound for Sinaloa, Mexico. In the early days of the expedition Mexia decided that she would be better suited to traveling alone.  At Mexia broke off from the expedition, gathered provisions, and sent for supplies to make her way to Mazatlan and down the Mexican coast. On this collecting trip Mexia gathered 3,500 specimens. This would mark the first of thirteen years of collecting expeditions in new and unexplored landscapes. Mexia’s solo expeditions would take her back to Mexico, across South America, and even into Alaska, where Mexia would be the first collect the flora of what is now the Denali National Park.

The California Academy of Sciences holds many of Ynez Mexia’s photographs from her numerous travels both domestically and abroad. Much of her collection is comprised of negatives shot on a cellulose nitrate film base, which was a plastic that was commonly used as a flexible film base from 1889 to around 1951. The nitrocellulose in the chemical composition gradually decomposes, making it vulnerable to specific types of deterioration over time.  Here at the California Academy of Sciences, we are taking measures to help slow down the inevitable deterioration process of Mexia’s collection of beautiful photographs so that future generations can benefit from her experiences.  We are currently in the process of digitizing Mexia’s nitrate negatives in order to retain access to the images while the artifacts are stored at a very low temperature. The negatives will be kept in a -20 degree stable environment to try and slow the deterioration process down to an imperceptible crawl. Ynes Mexia’s work embodies a pioneering spirit that we hope will continue to inspire curiosity and excitement in naturalists of all ages for generations to come.

Mexia, Ynes, 1870-1938

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Ynes Mexia © California Academy of Sciences.
Probably Middle Fork Canyon area, Kings Canyon National Park (Calif.) ca. 1919-1938

 

Mexia, Ynes, 1870-1938

Click to view the image larger in a new window.
Ynes Mexia © California Academy of Sciences.
“Sentinal Dome – Glacier point – Jeffry Pine. Nature class with Dr. Bryant. July 2/21.”

 

 

-Yolanda Bustos, Project Manager and Archives and Digital Collections Assistant Librarian


Resources

Anema, Durlynn. Ynes Mexia, Botanist and Adventurer. Greensboro, N.C: Morgan Reynolds Pub, 2005. Print.

Mexía, Ynés. Ynes Mexia Papers. , 1910. Archival material.

Polk, Milbry, and Mary Tiegreen. Women of Discovery: A Celebration of Intrepid Women Who Explored the World. New York: C. Potter, 2001. Print.


Filed under: Academy History,Archives,Photography — Archives & Special Collections @ 11:36 pm

November 12, 2013

Introducing: One Truth, Many Lies

(c) 2013 Diane T Sands

(c) 2013 Diane T Sands

One Truth, Many Lies: A New View of Art & Natural History Collections, a new Artist Residency Program at the California Academy of Sciences is seeking applications from West Coast visual artists for residencies in the spring/summer of 2014.

Deadline to enter December 13, 2013

Goals of the Residency

  • To connect visual artists and museum visitors in a lively discussion of the intersection of art and science;
  • To create programming and artwork that focuses on novel use of natural history collections as part of the artistic process.
  • To increase collections use by nontraditional communities;
  • To provide access to natural history library and research collections for artists to utilize in the creation of a body of work.

Selected artists will be required to present two programs during their residency, at least one of which must be a public educational program: A lecture or demonstration designed for the museum floor with general audiences in mind; And a hands-on workshop or other class offered free of charge to the public, and optimized for individuals to create and work collaboratively with the visiting artist. Programs will be arranged at scheduled times Thursdays through Sundays.

Significantly, artists will have at least one day to interact with researchers at the Academy and work with the research collections housed in the Academy’s Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability.

For more information about the residency and how to apply go to:  http://research.calacademy.org/opportunities/OTML

This Residency is made possible in part by a generous grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

This Residency is made possible in part by a generous grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

 


Filed under: Library News,Scientific Illustration,Smackdown — Dsands @ 10:23 pm

October 18, 2013

An Explosive Botanical Smackdown

Botanical illustration is an important aid to the study and classification of plants. Botanists and illustrators work together to create illustrations specifically designed to complement text. Botanical illustrations are used to illustrate floras, monographs, field guides and research papers. The artists follow well-established conventions, including a preference for black and white work, an ability to create drawings from herbarium specimens and an attention to detailed magnifications of diagnostic characters. Technical accuracy is essential.

This Smackdown, we light up the Firecracker flower, Dichelostemma ida-maia. 

from The Wild Flowers of California, by Mary Elizabeth Parsons, first published in 1897

from The Wild Flowers of California, by Mary Elizabeth Parsons, first published in 1897. Illustration by Ms. Buck.

 

Lithographic plate image courtesy of Academy's Special Collections.

Lithographic plate of above  image courtesy of Academy’s Special Collections.

Mary Elizabeth Parsons was born on August 1, 1859, in Chicago, Illinois. Although she had little formal education, she was always interested in gardening and horticulture. She came to California in 1883 and through her cousin, William Kent (a Republican Congressman), she met Alice Eastwood, Curator of Botany at the California Academy of Sciences.
Mary Elizabeth Parsons was the author of The Wild Flowers of California, first published in 1897 and later re-published in 1902, 1906, 1925 and finally in 1955. This publication by the California Academy of Sciences has a preface by John Thomas Howell, Curator of Botany.

Little is known about Miss Buck’s life today.  We tracked down the following from Wayne Roderick’s  California Native Plantsman.

Her family home was apparently in San Rafael. She and Elizabeth Parsons shared an interest in drawing and painting and for a time were members together in an art class given in San Rafael by a Mr. Latimer. As the wildflower book took shape in the 1890s, it was only natural for the author to turn to her talented companion of the Latimer class for assistance with the illustrations.

(c) 2013, Diane T Sands watercolor and pen&ink on illustration board

(c) 2013, Diane T Sands
watercolor and pen & ink on illustration board

A long time ago, I was a member of the American Society of Botanical Artists, a great group of artists and collectors who are “dedicated to promoting public awareness of contemporary botanical art, to honoring its traditions and to furthering its development.” For the ASBA, scientific illustration is a smaller piece of botanical art. In my mind, it is the other way around. Not only do I have a predilection for drawing animals, but I kept getting hung up on the required conventions of botanicals, specifically the isolated specimens on a pure white background with no extras. I can’t help it; I find this set up kind of boring. Mentally, I draw wild beasts into these delicate works, ripping the foliage apart or add killer robots with blasters setting fire to the petals.


October 11, 2013

New Reading Room exhibit celebrates Alexander Wilson (1766-1813)

Portrait of Alexander Wilson (public domain)

Portrait of Alexander Wilson (public domain)

2013 is the 200th anniversary of Alexander Wilson’s death.

Born in Scotland in 1766, Wilson was apprenticed to his brother-in-law, a weaver.  He was also a poet, and some of his satirical works saw him running afoul of the law.  At the age of 27, Wilson moved to Philadelphia, where he met William Bartram, the botanist and author generally considered to be America’s first native-born naturalist.  Bartram fostered and encouraged the young man’s interest in birds, and in 1802 Wilson decided to publish a work illustrating all the birds of North America. This effort was distinguished by Wilson’s emphasis on observation of live birds in their natural habitats, rather than relying primarily on already-dead specimens and birds in captivity.

Nine volumes of Wilson’s American Ornithology were published from 1808-1814. Volume 9 was published posthumously by George Ord, one of Wilson’s friends and executor of his estate. Alexander Wilson died in August of 1813 at the age of 47, succumbing to an illness that set in after he swam into a river, fully clothed, to secure a bird specimen.

American Ornithology depicts 268 species, including many first described by Wilson. His admirers and peers worked to expand American Ornithology after Wilson’s death, issuing supplements and further editions in an effort to complete his goal to illustrate all the birds of North America.

For more information: click here


Filed under: Uncategorized — Dsands @ 6:24 pm

August 22, 2013

Smack Fish Wolf Down

The Atlantic Wolffish, Anarhichas lupus, is an odd looking creature. The largest of the blennies, it can reach lengths of 5ft. or more. Its derpy expression is caused by the fang-like front teeth that protrude from the jaw. Creepy looking, but harmless to humans, they feed on mussels, crabs and other hard-shelled critters – using the anterior teeth to grasp, and the rounded molariform teeth to grind.

(c) California Academy of Sciences

(c) California Academy of Sciences

This illustration of Anarhichas lupus is by Marcus Elieser Bloch, from the book Allgemeine Naturgeschichte der Fische. Published in 1801, it was an influential work in early ichthyology. We displayed this illustration at Deep Sea Nightlife, along with a preserved specimen from the Steinhart Aquarium.

(c) 2013 Diane T Sands gouache and pencil

(c) 2013 Diane T Sands
gouache and pencil

What fascinated me about the wolffish was the huge contrast between the blue-grey, striped loner who eats shellfish, and the monstrous looking skull. It was the process of discovering this contrast that I chose to illustrate in the above study.


July 9, 2013

The Changing of the Bird

Today marked our semi-annual page turning of the Audubon Double-Elephant portfolio on display in the library reading room. Cameras were on hand to record this momentous occasion.

flippagemontage

You may have noticed that we are not wearing gloves during this procedure.  While we use white cotton gloves for handling photographs and negatives, cotton can snag, tear, or abrade fragile paper, and the looseness of the gloves makes it difficult to get a secure grip on the text block.  However, we thoroughly wash all surfaces (including our hands!) before beginning.  If you would like more information, feel free to read “Misconceptions about White Gloves” from the December 2005 International Federation of Library Associations Newsletter (http://archive.ifla.org/VI/4/news/ipnn37.pdf) or email the library and we’ll put you in touch with our rare books librarian (library [at] calacademy [dot] org) who will happily explain the handling policies for rare book materials.

 

For all of his prowess as an artist and fundraiser, Audubon had his faults. Reading through his writings it is clear to me that he either trusted people not at all, or far too much. The Pirpiry Flycatcher plate is one good example of this. In his description of obtaining specimens (Ornithological biography, v.2.), Audubon mentions that the son of a friend told him this species were nesting in the College Yard in South Carolina, which he ignored completely, only to admit later they were noted to return every year for three years hence. In the same entry, he states he was told that the plant on which he depicted the bird was abundant in Cuba, so he believed it appropriate as a background. It may exist in Cuba and the Keyes, but it is native from Malaysia to North Australia.

"Gray Tyrant" by John James Audubon. Birds of America: From Drawings Made in the United States and Their Territories (Octavo Ed. 1870). California Academy of Sciences Library, Rare Books QL674 .A9 1870.

“Gray Tyrant” by John James Audubon. Birds of America: From Drawings Made in the United States and Their Territories (Octavo Ed. 1870). California Academy of Sciences Library, Rare Books QL674 .A9 1870.

As new research is added and collected accounts synthesized, plants and animals change names. The species depicted in this plate not only have several common names, but their genus names have shifted as well.

Pirpiry Flycatcher/ Gray Tyrant/ Pitirre/ Gray Kingbird

Muscicapa dominicensis/ Tyrannus dominicensis

Hummingbird Tree/ Scarlet Wisteria/ Agati/ Bokful/ Heron Flower

Agati grandiflora/ Aeschynomene grandiflora/ Sesbania grandiflora

Our Double-Elephant Folio was the gift of Edward E. and Florence Hopkins Hills of San Francisco. The set survived the 1906 earthquake and fire in the hands of the San Francisco Art Association, who sold the work to Hills in 1941.  The work came to the Academy in 1964.

 


Filed under: Audubon,Rare Books — Archives & Special Collections @ 6:47 pm

June 21, 2013

A Smackdown for Bonzo

This month’s Illustration Smackdown takes a look at the chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes.  One of the great apes, chimpanzees are, as these things go, closely related to humans. But how close? You can see the current classification chart here, courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Life.

(c) California Academy of Sciences

(c) California Academy of Sciences

(c) California Academy of Sciences

(c) California Academy of Sciences

(c) California Academy of Sciences

(c) California Academy of Sciences

 

In the 1980s the Jane Goodall Institute “moved to the San Francisco offices of the California Academy of Sciences, where it functioned essentially as a USA/Africa “communication link” and as a repository for files.” (source) and Ms. Goodall continued to have a relationship with the academy after the JGI moved to DC.  She came to the Academy in 2008 to lecture and  promote her pioneering work in primatology. The above images are attributed to Jane Goodall and Hugo VanLanwick

(c) Diane T Sands. carbon dust on Ross board

(c) Diane T Sands. carbon dust on Ross board

Comparative anatomy is the study of the difference and similarities of different organisms. I will admit to having a fondness for comparing bones. There is something about placing the same bone from different species next to each other that I find both instructive and aesthetically pleasing. To this end, I created the above image with Pan troglodytes on the left and Homo sapiens on the right. The obvious differences in teeth point to differences in diet and acquisition of food. While both are omnivores, the chimpanzees large canines speak to the ripping and tearing of meat, while humans reduced canines likely came about from years of cutting bite sized portions via tool use. Also evident is the difference in size of the brain case. The human cerebrum is much larger than that of the chimpanzee. The extensive development of this cortex in humans is believed to distinguish the human brain from those of other animals


Filed under: Archives finds,Scientific Illustration,Smackdown — Dsands @ 5:58 pm

June 14, 2013

Mystery in the Stacks, Part II

Last month I wrote about Leverett Mills Loomis, the two Guadalupe Storm Petrels, and the other items he rescued from the fire that destroyed the California Academy of Sciences in the wake of the 1906 earthquake. I discussed our fine copy of Marc Athanse Parfait Oeillet Des Murs’ Iconographie Ornithologique, which I have referenced multiple times over the years without realizing that Loomis had saved it. If you’d like to view a complete copy of this beautiful work online, visit the Biodiversity Heritage Library to see the Smithsonian’s copy.

I promised to return and discuss the part of Loomis’ letter of May 7, 1906 reading:

As I wanted to be the first donor to the Academy’s new ornithological library, I put Brown’s illustrations under my arm as I passed the store-room.

 This read to me as if Loomis was in possession of some of Captain Thomas Brown’s hand colored engravings, originally issued in 1835 as Illustrations of the American Ornithology of Alexander Wilson and Charles Lucian Bonaparte, Prince of Musignano… The work was intended to serve as the illustrated atlas accompanying the original European edition of Alexander Wilson’s groundbreaking American Ornithology, first issued in Philadelphia between 1808 and 1814.

I found this shocking to say the least. I had never seen a copy of Brown’s Illustrations in the Library, and I only 12 copies are listed in OCLC WorldCat. It is a beautiful work, considered one of the rarest illustrated ornithologies, issued in Royal Folio (20 inches tall) with vividly colored plates.

plate3-web                  plate4-web

(Left: Plate 16 “Carolina Parrot,” Yellow-billed Cuckoo,” and “Black-billed Cuckoo.” Right: Unnumbered plate “Honduras Turkey.” Both from Illustrations of the American Ornithology of Alexander Wilson and Charles Lucian Bonaparte.)

None of the records I examined gave any clue as to what Loomis had done with “Brown’s Illustrations.” Remembering that the Rare Book collections were once upon a time cataloged differently than (and housed separately from) the rest of the Library, I decided to scan the shelves to see if anything seemed to fit the bill.

Scanning the oversize shelves in the range of QL674 – QL682 (the classification of the other Wilson volumes), I figured I might find a manila folder with a few loose plates, or something similar. Imagine my surprise at finding what appeared to be a large, complete folio volume, with a call number on a tag (made on a typewriter) but with no barcode or other label. A bookplate on the pastedown reads “Presented by Leverett Mills Loomis April 18, 1906.” It seems unlikely that Loomis would make a gift to the Library while the City was engulfed in flames, so I’m going to wager that this bookplate was created long after the book was rescued.

When I opened the volume, I discovered an inscription (in Latin) apparently written by Behr, gifting this book to Loomis in July of 1900 or 1901.

inscription-web

(Inscription from H.H. Behr to Leverett Mills Loomis, from Illustrations of the American Ornithology of Alexander Wilson and Charles Lucian Bonaparte.)

The first plate in the book also boasts the inscription “Property of H. H. Behr” faintly in the upper right.

plate2-web

(Plate 1 “California Vulture” From Illustrations of the American Ornithology of Alexander Wilson and Charles Lucian Bonaparte.)

Dr. Behr served as Vice President of the California Academy of Sciences and was an accomplished physician, collector of butterflies, and Curator of Entomology, as well as a speaker and scholar of at least six languages. He passed away in 1904 at the age of 85, and was lovingly eulogized by his Academy colleagues.

It would seem these are the illustrations Loomis saved in 1906; however, I have found no record of when this book came to the Academy Library. It was possibly transferred after Loomis’ death in 1928, or at some point when the Ornithology department merged their library with the Main collection. Regardless, we will soon finish cataloging the book, making 13 OCLC libraries with a copy of Illustrations of the American Ornithology of Alexander Wilson and Charles Lucian Bonaparte by Captain Thomas Brown.

Becky Morin
Head Librarian


Filed under: Academy History,Rare Books — Librarian @ 9:00 pm

The Reading Room has gone batty!

For those of you able to stop by the Library Reading Room, there is a newly installed exhibit featuring BATS!

Nearly 20% of all mammals are bats. There are roughly 1,240 bat species worldwide. The order Chiroptera (from the Greek, meaning “hand-wing”) is broken into two subclasses. The megachiroptera are large, primarily fruit-eating bats that rely on sight and smell to locate their food. The microchiroptera feed on insects, which they locate via echolocation.

bats from Buffon's Natural History, 1797

bats from Buffon’s Natural History, 1797, courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

I saw this image on the  Biodiversity Heritage Library’s Flickr stream . It is from Buffon’s Natural history, containing a theory of the earth, a general history of man, of the brute creation, and of vegetables, minerals, &c. &c. From the French, with notes by the translator.  London:1797-1807. And honestly, at first I thought they were some weird sheep, or blocky, ungulate-sized mice. What else for a scientific illustrator to do, but create an improved image?

bats_small

(c) Diane T Sands 2013, pastel on paper

The three bats presented in the Buffon image done here in pastel, from top to bottom:

  • Greater Bulldog bat, Nolctilio nigrita

  • Ternat or Greater Yellow House bat, Pteropus vulgaris

  • Senegal bat, Vespertilio nigrita

The bat exhibit will be on display in the Library Reading Room through the end of 2013.


Filed under: Exhibits,Rare Books,Scientific Illustration,Smackdown — Dsands @ 7:18 pm

May 25, 2013

Archives Unboxed: Episode #355 of Science in Action (1959)!

In 1949, the California Academy of Sciences furthered its longstanding mission to engage and educate the public in the sciences by expanding to the media of television. With generous underwriting from the American Trust Company (now Wells Fargo Bank) the California Academy of Sciences was able to produce Science in Action, a half hour science program which consisted of  twenty-two and a half minutes of programming on a specific scientific topic, presented by the Academy’s then curator of the Steinhart Aquarium Earl Herald in tandem with a foremost expert on the show’s subject. Over its sixteen year run, the show included interviews with several Nobel Laureates, including Harold Urey, Linus Pauling, Glenn T Seaborg, and Wendell M Stanley, all recipients of the Nobel Prize for chemistry who spoke on topics ranging from the Earth’s origins (Episode 107) to Cancer research (Episode 191). Science in Action also featured great innovators of American craft and design like Buckminster Fuller and Charles Eames.

Episode #355, “Earth’s Radiation Belts,” explored the methods used by scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to determine the intensity and effects of Van Allen radiation belts surrounding the Earth.  This particular episode aired in 1959 – two years after Soviet dog Laika became the first animal in orbit, two years before Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin completed the first successful human spaceflight, and three years before astronaut John Glenn piloted the Mercury-Atlas 6 around the Earth.  In 1959, the question voiced by host Earl Herald was one of the key scientific mysteries at the start of the Space Race: “What [are these radiation belts] going to mean for the first person to take off from the earth as a space traveler?”

Herald interviewed three researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (then known as the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory at UC Berkeley). Dr. R. Stephen White (Leader of the Nuclear Effects Group), Dr. Stanley Freden (Senior Staff Physicist), and Mr. Albert Oliver (Head of Processing Department), explained LLNL’s  method of radiation testing in the Van Allen belts: mounting an emulsion stack on a rocket, which was then launched into the region of the radiation belts using a rockoon (a rocket suspended from a high-altitude balloon), recovered upon returning to Earth, and processed to test for radiation intensity.

In Dr. Herald’s own words: “Compared to the excitement surrounding the man/satellite program, this little box [the emulsion stack] may not seem like much.  But when you stop and think of the fantastic amount of vital information that has been derived from it, and what this information will mean to the safety of future space travel, and a better understanding of the mysterious forces which surround the earth, then this little box takes on quite a different meaning.” The subject interview was  followed by a three minute “animal of the week” segment featuring Academy Herpetologist Ted Papenfuss and a series of rattlesnakes he collected from Southern Arizona and New Mexico.

As the first science television show on the west coast, Science in Action quickly made a name for itself as the finest in family programming with praise and support pouring in from both the media and viewers. The media regaled the show as one which “far exceeds anything else in the field of educational and science television.”[i]  Fan mail from children, parents, and educators indicated that the show was regarded with great affection. In 1951, Science in Action’s ratings indicated that the show tied for second place in children’s programming alongside Howdy Doody and trailing only slightly behind Hopalong Cassidy and hedging out the Lone Ranger! Additionally, Science in Action went on to win five Emmy Awards for Best Cultural and Educational Program (1951 and 1952), Best Live Show (1952), Special Achievement Award (1954), and the Excellence in Education Award (1955). The show also received a host of local and national awards for excellence.

Special thanks to Jim Oliver for generously providing the funding to transfer this classic from 16mm film to preservation-quality digital video.  We salute you!

For more information about Science in Action, visit http://research.calacademy.org/library/collections/archives/SIAtelevision and feel free to drop us a line.

 

- Heather Yager and Yolanda Bustos
Archives and Digital Collections


[i] Foster, Bob. “S.F. Holds Its Own in TV Shows Locally Produced”, San Mateo Times. August 8, 1951.


Filed under: Academy History,Archives,Archives finds,Science in Action — admin @ 12:06 am
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