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Petaluma historian relishes city’s storied past

As a member of a maturing population of who attended school here in the 1950s and 60s, I’m often reminded of the generations who made and continue to make use of the Petaluma Library as an essential part of our learning. From the youth oriented “story time” on Saturday mornings to after school and evening visits where we gathered material for essays, book reports and term papers, nothing matched the hands-on experience of the library.

With many readers of this column holding an interest in our local history, I felt the time was right to discuss some of the important benefits and valuable resources available throughout our library system, particularly those provided by the Sonoma County History and Genealogy Library, which is managed by Petaluma resident Katherine Rinehart and is located in the annex behind Santa Rosa’s central library.

It goes without saying that without the immense help provided by the Petaluma and Santa Rosa branches, the Petaluma Historical Museum and Library, the History Room, the History and Genealogy Library and especially from the tireless friend-to-all Rinehart, this column would have faded away long ago.

“We’re a very well-kept secret in a nondescript 50-year-old building that needs technological upgrades” said 14-year employee Rinehart of the annex, which was established in 1996 when the central library’s California Room was moved and renamed.

As manager she’s assisted by one part-time employee and a volunteer staff of five in providing copious amounts of information to a wide spectrum of inquisitive daily visitors and numerous telephone and email requests through the library’s web site.

Common queries range from authors and researchers looking for background material, professionals seeking historical records and photos of old buildings, to people doing cemetery research and National History Day students focused on local landmarks. Microfilm archives of local newspapers along with historic maps, city directories, property records and high school yearbooks are also popular with walk-in visitors. The holiday season brings in countless requests for historical photos from those wishing to compile family history albums, and there are plenty to choose from with more than 40,000 images available in the online catalog. Newspapers, including the Argus-Courier, frequently make use of the library’s photo archives.

Local historical societies, wineries, and the 6th Street Playhouse theater company are among those wishing to authenticate information on people, places and things. In turn, the library is reliant on its partnership with local historical societies for their research.

“Most people don’t realize the History and Genealogy Library has material on all 50 states and many foreign countries” noted Rinehart. “We’re a part of huge network and sometimes they’re surprised at the range of resources available to them.”

The journey to her present position has been a long and winding path for the well-organized and highly motivated Rinehart, some of it was carefully planned and some of it serendipitous.

She gained inspiration as a child from reading the magical book, “James and the Giant Peach,” and became interested in history through her father’s deep appreciation of the subject. Summer vacations that took the family to places like Europe and Mexico also provided ample stimulation for her curiosity. Born in Marin County, her father Thomas Johnson, taught photography at College of Marin and her mother, Sally Brasseur, is a well-known community volunteer.

Rinehart had worked as a legal secretary and considered a career as a paralegal before enrolling at Sonoma State University, where she earned her B.A. in history, while interning during her senior year for Congresswoman Barbara Boxer. She began pursuing her master’s degree by doing a historic resources survey on Penngrove, west of Old Redwood Highway, as her thesis topic. It was during this research that she fell in love with the history of Petaluma, its architecture and its visually fascinating locations. Her interest deepened after befriending influential historical leaning women Lucy Kortum, Prue Draper and others.

Various positions of intertwining significance, including historical researcher, architectural historian, historic preservationist and executive director of Rebuilding Together Petaluma have immersed her in the community.

I first met Katherine when she became president of the Petaluma Museum Association. To this day, I have never seen anyone as deeply involved and thorough as when she created the museum’s well received dairy exhibit. She’s introduced me to numerous individuals who later became subjects of this column and many times I’ve enjoyed sitting in on her enlightening presentations focusing on Petaluma’s history. Married to landscape architect Bill Rinehart since 2002, Katherine is the author of “Petaluma: A History in Architecture,” a contributor to “Celebrating Petaluma” and the 2007 recipient of Petaluma’s Good Egg award.

(Harlan Osborne’s column Toolin’ Around Town appears every two weeks. Contact him at harlan@sonic.net.)

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