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Phoenix Burton Barr Library room highlights history, culture, people

On the second floor of Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix is a room filled with Arizona history dating back to territorial days. 

On a Wednesday evening, library assistant Tom O’Connell welcomes about 20 people to the Arizona Room.

“There’s 14 women, they started our library system out of a building downtown,” he explains.

They called themselves the Friday Club.

Library Deputy Director Terry Ann Lawler says they organized in 1897, "And then two rooms opened as a library on the second floor of the Fleming building on Washington Street and 1st Avenue in 1898."

The city’s first library building opened in 1908, thanks to a grant from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. A different name dominates the Arizona Room. The James H. McClintock collection includes 2,000 photos, 15 scrapbooks and 33 linear feet of files dating back to his arrival in 1897. A teacher and journalist, McClintock was part of the cavalry known as “Roosevelt’s Rough Riders” before being appointed Phoenix’s first postmaster.

Before Instagram and TikTok, people relied on postcards to share images and information. Thanks to Susan Arreola, a former city planner who collected them, the Arizona Room has 2,500 postcards depicting life in Phoenix from around statehood — that’s 1912 — into the '60s.

“It’s just so interesting,” Ditas Fallis says.

She is drawn to the postcards featuring Van Buren Street. During its mid century heyday, Van Buren was called the “Funset Strip.”  Neon signs attracted tourists to motels, restaurants and shops.

“And to think the history of Van Buren has changed so much,” Ditas says.

So has Phoenix’s population. Tom O’Connell shows visitors a skinny book with a red spine. It’s the city directory from 1892 when Phoenix reported 1,200 residents.

“So you can go there and you can see your listing, who owned the property and sometimes there’s like a little notation of what job they did like sometimes it’ll say clerk or banker. I’ve done it for my own property and mine said banker,” he says.

High school yearbooks are popular items. There are dozens, including O’Connell’s 1988 book from Paradise Valley, which almost always generates laughs over the big hair.

The oldest is from Phoenix Union in 1920. A 1945 yearbook from George Washington Carver High School includes Phoenix’s longest-serving councilmember, Calvin Goode.

“Everyone was dressed really nicely,” says Special Collections Librarian Alex Mada. “Button up shirts, cardigans, blazers.”

Carver was built for African American students during segregation. Headlines on two yearbook pages read: “The Advantage of Taking Spanish” and “The Importance of Negro History in the High Schools.”

Raised in south Phoenix, Mada was thrilled to discover copies of a community newspaper called ‘Voice of the City” from the '60s and '70s.

“You know, it’s stories about that community and stories that are written from people of the community so it’s super interesting to see people of color like, really fully represented,” she says.

“It’s mind boggling how much information is here,” Lawler says.

Authors who write about Arizona history often rely on the room’s primary source materials.

“It means it comes straight from the person, it’s not written about by somebody else. That person wrote that postcard or that person took that photograph or that person drew that map. Their voice is the primary source," Lawler says.

"You know, it’s stories about that community and stories that are written from people of the community so it’s super interesting to see people of color like, really fully represented." — Alex Mada, special collections librarian

While most items are donated, there’s a display near the entrance that features library materials purchased decades ago.

“I found them in a storage box and I thought this is amazing,” Mada says.  

She added a record collection so visitors can enjoy a variety of vinyl, like the 1970’s holiday album from the Phoenix Boys Choir and “Sunderella,” a full-length album recapping the Phoenix Suns’ 1975-76 Cinderella year, narrated by Al McCoy, who just retired after 51 seasons as the team’s play-by-play announcer.

More than 30,000 items make up the Arizona Room. Some, like the postcard collection, can be found online through the Arizona Memory Project

The Arizona Room is open by appointment on Monday and Friday, and from noon to 4 p.m. on Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday. It is closed Sunday. 

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As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.