Clovis News

Fresno Co. library collects Valley yearbooks

The Fresno County Library wants to record for posterity those once-in-a-lifetime days when you had a full head of hair and only one chin, ran for touchdowns, wore the coolest clothes, read books throughout the day and kept a sharp eye on that special someone among your peers.

The library wants high school yearbooks. Believe it or not, they're priceless history.

Early June in the San Joaquin Valley means the end of another school year. For many students, it also means a week or two of yearbook mania -- checking out photos in the annual tomes, writing comments to friends in their copies, perhaps wishing you had shown up for the Spanish Club group snapshot.

For Bill Secrest Jr., librarian in the California Genealogy and History Room at the downtown county library, early June means another opportunity to add to the library's collection of yearbooks from Fresno County high schools.

"What we try to do here is document the whole story of Fresno County," Secrest said. "We go after just about any scrap of information that has to do with the county. The yearbooks are an important part of that history."

Secrest said Linda Sitterding, now Madera County librarian, started the collection in the 1990s. The library has some yearbooks from local colleges and elementary schools, but most of the collection, which is listed on the library's website, comes from high schools.

The oldest yearbooks date from Fresno High School in the late 19th century. Fresno Tech, which no longer exists, is represented in the collection. There are many gaps, but Secrest estimates the collection has almost 3,000 volumes (including duplicates).

Secrest said he wants extras because many yearbooks, especially the older ones, have inexpensive binding that can fall apart. Sometimes, yearbooks also fall prey to someone hiding a razor blade to cut out pictures, he said.

Sentiment is part of the collection's inspiration, but not its main purpose.

"Some of these qualify as rare books," Secrest said. "All are a piece of history. They're a miniature time capsule."

Secrest said the collection grows in many ways. Schools donate them. Library employees keep an eye on estate and yard sales. Used-book store owners sometimes call with a find. Yearbook owners occasionally give away their last written connection to high school.

But most people cherish their yearbooks, as do their heirs, Secrest said. Each edition also has a one-time, limited printing. He said that's why the library must be so diligent in filling gaps in its collection.

You can't check out the yearbooks, but access is easy -- walk into the California history room on the downtown branch's second floor and ask for a specific school and specific year.

Secrest said the collection gets a steady stream of readers. He said he and staff members don't ask why. But, he added, readers sometimes let slip their motive -- a long-dormant affair of the heart.

"The years have elapsed, they're divorced or widowed, and they think somebody might be available," Secrest said.

Secrest made three other quick points about yearbooks.

First, content changes with technology.

Early in the 20th century, the books were heavy with prose. Photography was rudimentary and photos expensive to reproduce. With the advent of 35-millimeter photography before World War II, yearbooks suddenly had more photos and fewer posed shots.

Second, older yearbooks often are full of unusual details -- quirky things in the background such as a building now long gone.

Third, high school yearbooks are designed to be signed. Some of the library's yearbooks are full of such messages, some brimming with the passion and heartbreak of youth. Secrest said no attempt is made to remove them.

The yearbook industry has changed dramatically. Fifty years ago, yearbooks were full of black-and-white photos, formal poses were typical, page design was sometimes done by experts at the printer's shop, students put pages together with X-Acto knives and glue and the finished product was hauled by hand to the publisher.

Today's yearbooks are explosions of color. Informal photos are everywhere. Students do everything from write copy, edit photos and design pages on computers. And the push of a button digitally sends it all to the printer.

But today's yearbooks also face a tougher consumer market. A half-century ago, students who wanted a visual chronicle of their school year had no choice but to buy a yearbook. Facebook has changed that forever.

The recession has hurt the industry, too. Thomas Craig, adviser for the Clovis High "Cavalcade" for almost 20 years, said he expects about half of the school's 2,600 students to buy yearbooks this year ($49 if purchased in the fall, $59 now). In previous years, Craig said, about two-thirds of the students bought yearbooks.

Yet, Craig added, he is confident that yearbooks will survive.

"You can't replace carrying a book around and giving it to your friends to sign," Craig said.

It's also hard to beat spending an hour at the downtown library thumbing through old yearbooks and letting your private thoughts wander.

Just ask Sarah Garza, a Fresno resident who graduated from Clovis High in 2005. She sat at a table in the California History room on Thursday, a small stack of yearbooks from Clovis Unified School District high schools in front of her.

"I look at everything," Garza said. "I like to see who these people were."

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