Glendale Central Library clips cat collection

Twenty years ago, Cindy Cleary was working in Glendale's Central Library when a recipe in a special collections room caught her eye.

It was a recipe for cooking a cat.

"That was a stunner when I came across that," said Cleary, who is now director of Library Arts & Culture for the city.

The cat-cooking recipe was part of an extensive collection of feline-related books at the Glendale Central Library that, at its height, was deemed the largest in the nation.

At one point, the collection had more than 4,000 cat-related books and other items, including cat magazines, photographs and calendars.  

But Glendale is giving up its claim, selling off valuable books, trying to unload others.

News of the retreat made cat enthusiasts hiss.

"I think this is a horrible time for them to do this," said Janiss Garza, an Eagle Rock resident who has written cat advice books and pens the popular blog, sparklecat.com, featuring her Somali of 11 years. "Cats are so popular right now. They're all over the Internet."

But the Internet is partially to blame. The collection had once attracted serious cat researchers from far and wide. Librarians would field cat-related inquiries from as far away as Europe, Cleary said.

But eventually the phones stopped ringing and the researchers stopped coming. Before the books were put into storage, the library would get one or two people interested in seeing the collection every few months.

"We've been pondering for years whether it's really relevant to have a cat collection here," Cleary said. "The interest in it has really waned."

The collection began in the mid-1960s when the founders of the now-defunct Jewel City Cat Club — Sidney Roberta Billig and her husband, Dr. Harvey Billig — donated about 150 books.

The collection grew as the cat club continued to funnel donated items and the library purchased books to supplement it. And the library wasn't picky about titles. If it had "cat" in the title, they would likely take it, Cleary said.

The collection's growth tapered off in the 1990s after a recession rippled through city budgets.

Over the decades, the library had amassed serious books about cat health, heritage and breeding, as well as titles that included "Zodicat Speaks" by Doctor Zodicat, a hardcover that delves into why Taurus cats are lazy and Cancer cats are oddballs. And there was "Dear Tabby (Or Letters from the Purr-plexed)" — a parody of the popular "Dear Abby" newspaper column.

Garza had hoped to add to the collection with some books she has authored, including "Dear Sparkle: Cat to Cat Advice from the World's Foremost Feline Columnist." But that window appears to have closed.

"I'm really kind of bummed," she said, although she admits that the last time she used the collection was about three years ago.

It's been 10 years for Lorraine Shelton, a pedigree researcher in Norco. She now has an online database of a half-million entries that she likens to ancestry.com, but for cats.

"It was just amazing to put my hands on a book published in 1906, to know that the cat that was sitting on my lap just hours before had a continuous line to a cat I could trace back to 1906," Shelton said.

What Shelton fears most is that all the materials that have been brought together over the years will be scattered to the wind. With all the original donors and most of the cat club members deceased, the library has nowhere to return the books, so librarians have resorted to selling items on Amazon.com.

"The Breeding and Management of the Siamese Cat," published in 1950, is selling for $95 online. T.S. Eliot's 1939 poem collection "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" has been priced at $100.

But not all the Amazon titles are so pricey. "Everything I Know About Life I Learned from My Cat" can be had for $8.

Other items, such as breed registries, are harder to find homes for. Glendale librarians have been hard-pressed to find other libraries that will take the bulk of the reference books in the collection.

Melissa Barton, a curator at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, said their cat collection of more than 1,150 books, painting and porcelain sculptures is not open to new materials.

But the reference titles may yet make someone purr.

David Mare, president of the Cat Fanciers Assn. Foundation — which has a museum in Ohio that includes more than 1,500 cat books — saw an opportunity of possibly providing a home.

If Mare nets the rest of Glendale's cat books, the museum could claim title to having the biggest and best cat collection around.

"That would make us all feel very proud," he said.

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Follow Brittany Levine on Google+ and on Twitter: @brittanylevine.

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