Some of the world’s best surfing beaches are just minutes from UC Irvine. Closer still is a special collection at UCI’s Langson Library that documents the history of surfing and surf culture in Orange County.
“It’s a small collection but one that appeals to a growing number of our patrons – UCI undergraduates” says Steve MacLeod, public services coordinator in Special Collections & Archives. He started gathering materials for the collection five years ago.
It’s part of a much larger collection on Orange County history that encompasses environmental activism, Irvine Ranch, Mission San Juan Capistrano, the city of Irvine, ranchos, the Irvine Company, 19th century actress Helena Modjeska and local politics.
It was a good fit for MacLeod, a Palo Alto native who learned to surf in Santa Cruz as a teenager. “This was before wet suits,” he says, recalling the chilly Northern California waters.
Starting Wednesday, Feb. 23, selected surfing collection materials – books, vintage photos, movie posters, etc. – will be on display in Langson Library, near the fifth-floor entrance to the newly renovated Special Collections & Archives department.
The UCI Libraries special collection features the first published depiction of surfing, in A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, a compilation of Captain James Cook’s journals published in 1784, after the British explorer’s death in Hawaii. The four-volume, hardcover account of Cook’s travels includes a large folio atlas of illustrations and maps.
One illustration shows Hawaiian natives atop long wooden planks, apparently welcoming the British sailors ashore. “This is the first known illustration and written description of surfing,” says MacLeod. “It specifically shows and describes Cook’s arrival at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island in 1779.”
Far less exotic is the collection’s 1935 issue of Popular Science Monthly that contains a how-to guide on making a surfboard, with photos of Newport Harbor High School students shaping balsa wood.
Konstantin Butz, a doctoral student in American studies at the University of Cologne, in Germany, visited the archive last summer to conduct research for a project on Southern California surf and skate culture.
“The fact that there is such a thing as a special collection on surfing culture is very encouraging for someone doing academic work on skateboarding and corresponding cultures,” he says. “Just being at the collection and skimming through a couple of the books was very inspiring.”
MacLeod takes pride in the collection and enjoys showing it off to visitors – from local grommets and history buffs to filmmakers and European graduate students.
“Steve made me feel welcome right away, and he provided a lot of information about the archive and institutions beyond academia that might be of interest for my project,” Butz says.