Larry Johnson has an Okie book lover's dream job.
And a state history enthusiast's dream job. And an old-photo hound's dream job.
How fitting, since he is an Okie, from Broken Arrow, but he has lived in 20 other cities and towns in Oklahoma; a state history enthusiast and an old-photo hound.
Johnson, 45, is manager of the Oklahoma Collection and the Oklahoma Images Project for the Metropolitan Library System. Between them, the collections yield a physical and digital cornucopia of Sooner State books, photos, publications and documents, including transcripts from a landmark 1950s oral history/folklore audio recording project.
His office is in the Ronald J. Norick Downtown Library, not far from a place where a dedicated Oklahoma bibliophile could spend the better part of a lifetime:
The Oklahoma Room.
It's a special space in downtown Oklahoma City, a big, climate-controlled room on the second floor of the library, with shelf after shelf of books by, for and about Oklahomans. Some 6,000 books in all grace the special stacks. Most can be found elsewhere, but some are extremely hard to come by. A few are probably ones-of-a-kind.
Johnson has several books to his credit, including “Historic Photos of Oklahoma City,” “Historic Photos of Oklahoma,” “Historic Photos of Oklahoma Lawmen” and “Historic Photos of Outlaws of the Old West,” all published by Turner Publishing Co. in Nashville, Tenn.
He recently started his own publishing company promoting Oklahoma authors, Forty-sixth Star Press (fortysixthstarpress.com). Oklahoma represented the 46th added to the U.S. flag when it became a state in 1907.
The company logo, red, with “46” inside a star, “is derived from the original state flag which was created in 1911, but was decommissioned in 1925 because it was feared the vibrant red field suggested that we were a Socialist state,” the company website says. “We're not Socialists, we just think it looks cool.”
Johnson has worked for the Metropolitan Library System for 13 years. Before that, he was a reference librarian at the University of Central Oklahoma library in Edmond. He has a bachelor's degree in history from Southern Nazarene University and a master's of information and library science from the University of Oklahoma.
Why all Oklahoma all the time? And why so much local history? There are books on the library shelves by and about everyday people, as well as tomes with stories about folks who were prominent in their day, in their place — say, Inola, or Shattuck, or Devol, or Bokchito — but who have long fallen from public consciousness.
“From the library point of view, the high-minded answer is the past and the present give their history in trust to the future. We're sort of the midwife for that. We hold that in trust for future generations,” he said. It's “the history of us.”
His favorite books in the Oklahoma Room?
“And Satan Came Also: An inside story of a city's social and political history,” by Albert Leroy McRill, former Oklahoma City manager, from 1955. About? Oklahoma City, of course.
Charles Colcord's autobiography also is among Johnson's favorites. Colcord came to Oklahoma in the Land Run of 1889 and was an early lawman, builder and developer. He died in 1934, although “The Autobiography of Charles Francis Colcord, 1859-1934” was privately published in 1970.
He said his favorite photos in Oklahoma Images are from Oklahoma City in the 1910s showing horse-drawn vehicles, automobiles, a streetcar and bicycles — the young city at crossroads of time and technology.
“You can see the city transforming. It's getting taller. It looks almost like an East Coast city,” Johnson said, noting that public contributions to the library's image collection exploded after it was put online (go to www.mls.
Which brings up an example of a happy day for Johnson: “When someone comes in and says, ‘I was cleaning out this old building and I've got this box of photographs. Do you want them?”
Which brings up an example of a challenging kind of day, which might be sparked by something found in such a donation: “I really take the job seriously. I really feel that it's important. It's almost overwhelming. There's always something I don't know. ... There's always the challenge to find the missing link or the missing piece of documentation.”
Special collections/reference librarian