Alumnus Finds Niche in Special Collections

Tony Alfieri

Lifelong Glendale resident George Ellison, 60, received a sudden surplus of spare time when his parents sold the family appliance parts business.

“The [new] owners didn’t want me around,” he said. “It was a blessing in disguise.”

Free to indulge his curiosity about the origins of his hometown, Ellison became an assistant to then librarian Barbara R. Boyd at the Glendale Central Library’s Special Collections Room. He earned his Library Assistant certificate from GCC and for the past 25 years, he has overseen and archived materials on subjects ranging from local history to California missions to Abraham Lincoln and to a subject that Ellison never imagined he would become an expert on: cats.
The library houses one of the world’s largest collections of all things feline.
Largely, through donations from the now-defunct Jewel City Cat Club, the collection includes information on breeding and lineage, cat-themed art and antiques, even tarot cards to foresee a furry one’s future.

“A lot of people feel good about the collection and like to come here and commune,” says Nora Goldsmith, the Library Access Services Administrator at the Glendale Public Library. “It’s an outstanding collection.”

Ellison gently opened the deeply varnished and ornate lattice cabinets that line the Special Collections Room’s reading den to reveal the cräme of the cat collection. Here one can browse rare periodicals, books as big as ones head, and others as small as ones palm.

Perfectly arranged between finely crafted ceramics and rows of guilded volumes are a set of pulp detective books with cats as the protagonist. The latter, Ellison admits, are not his favorite.

“I like animals,” he explained, “but I’m not one of those ‘cat people’.”

If Ellison had only one subject to collect and preserve, it would be memorabilia from the Pacific Electric Railway system that carved through Los Angeles and its vicinity.
Ellison recalls the brightly colored trains, the original names of local schools and hospitals, and reminisces about natural landmarks long since replaced by strip malls and asphalt.

“George is the most knowledgeable person here when it comes to Glendale history,” said Patricia Zeider, Senior Library Supervisor. “He’s the go-to guy.”

If there’s a substance gap, Ellison has been known to donate personal items to the collection, including early photographs of Glendale College.

Ellison cannot remember the last time someone asked to view one of his glossy classics or many of the other treasures tucked away in the Special Collections Room that also contains a set of discontinued GCC yearbooks.

Usage has decreased in recent years, especially with the cat collection.

Daily visits by researchers have dropped to weekly visits, said Ellison, as he dusted off his favorite book of cat engravings, which dates back to 1897. Ellison attributes the drop to a rise in Internet use, not necessarily lack of interest.

The dwindling numbers does not mean less work for Ellison. Thousands of items wait to be organized and archived. Towers of musty digests and dormant media dwarf Ellison’s lanky frame as he shuffles through the maze-like storage area behind the reading room.
Ellison hunches over a dozen boxes of “cat-alogs” stacked neatly on the floor, then stops to reflect: “Sometimes I wonder, ‘Why I am doing this? How did I ever wind up here?'”

Despite the endless undertaking – he also volunteers as an archivist for First United Methodist Church in Glendale – Ellison is firm about setting aside one day a week purely for personal time because, he believes that, “you have to live in the present.”