Hangin' in the Wangenheim Room
Finding rare treasures in the library's hidden room
Tucked away on the third floor in the quiet corner of the downtown San Diego Public Library is The Wangenheim Room. Designed to resemble a 19th-century private library, this collection of more than 9,000 items seems like just that — especially after I peered in to check it out and saw just a single man buried in a book. But although its hidden, peaceful atmosphere may detract wanderers for fear it’s a private room, this prestigious collection is rewarding, free and very much public.
I went on Monday afternoon to check out the new exhibit, Who Signed That?: Autographed and Inscribed Books from the Wangenheim Room Collection. Being a Sherlock Holmes fan, I was excited to see the signature of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Also on display are the signatures of Herbert Hoover, Mark Twain, Jack London and more. But this was not the highlight of my visit.
Within 10 minutes, the man who had been buried in his book was now capturing me with stories. Richard Fridshal, the docent, was bursting with facts and information about the library. He pointed out things I hadn’t noticed, like the smallest book in the world: At 2.4 mm by 2.9 mm, I’m not surprised I almost missed it. For comparison, it’s about the size of the tip of a matchstick. There are more mini books, such as the Lord’s Prayer and a Midget Webster Dictionary, which I’m sure would require a very strong magnifying glass to read. Other things I wonder how I didn’t see before are a large 45-pound book from 1686, and a chair from the original Wangenheim library. I had discovered gold, literally: There are books with beautiful paintings on the side that when closed completely are hidden by gold gliding.
This was the exciting part. Fridshal’s passion is contagious and his information about the Wangenheim Room is extensive. The books in the room are so old and valuable that they can’t even put call numbers on the bindings. There in that seemingly quiet, hidden third floor of the library, I had discovered a San Diego secret that not many other people have.
I know Fridshal didn’t tell me all his stories. I know I didn’t see everything in the Wangenheim room. But I was still in disbelief that the man behind the book and the hidden room in the corner had so much more to offer than it first seemed. I guess you can’t judge a book by its cover.
Who Signed That? runs through September 2 at the San Diego Public Library, 820 E Street, downtown, 619-236-5800, sandiego.gov/public-library. The Wangenheim Room is open from Monday through Saturday, 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.