When people tell Norman Cohan they’ve lived in Santa Barbara for years, sometimes decades, and never discovered the gems on display at the Karpeles Manuscript Library, he’s not surprised.
“People say that a lot,” the 20-year director of the museum said last week, after giving Noozhawk a tour of some of the priceless artifacts that sit behind the unassuming stucco walls of the museum at 21 W. Anapamu St. in downtown.
Just yards from the din of State Street, the museum would be easy to overlook, but in doing so, newcomers or longtime residents alike would miss out on precious history.
“These are the manuscripts that changed history,” said Cohan, adding that in the two decades he’s been with the museum, he’s never seen the same exhibit twice.
There are 12 Karpeles museums in the United States, but Santa Barbara’s is the flagship. All are free and open to the public, and people from all over the world have signed into the museum’s guestbook on their journeys through Santa Barbara.
David Karpeles, a real estate investor and mathemetician who developed artificial intelligence programs for General Electric, discovered his passion for collecting after visiting Pasadena’s Huntington Library with his four children.
After observing their fascination with many of the documents on display there, Karpeles and his wife, Marsha, began collecting their own documents, eventually amassing enough of a private collection to fill a dozen museums throughout the country.
“He’s become this great preserver of history,” Cohan said.
The permanent collection that stays in the museum is also impressive, encompassing communication throughout the ages, spanning from a cuneiform tablet dating back to 2400 B.C. to computers used by NASA to communicate during the first moon landing in 1969.
Copies of the more important, and most valuable, documents are on display at the museum, with the originals kept safely away in Karpeles’ home in Montecito.
Unfortunately, that home was where a fire broke out on the night of Dec. 29. Before firefighters could extinguish the flames four hours later, more than half of the 20,000-square-foot house was destroyed. Authorities said the fire started in the basement and did not appear to be suspicious.
Although the family’s living quarters in an older part of the house were badly damaged, firefighters concentrated on defending a newer part of the house and were able to save the library. Cohan said most of the precious documents are kept in a fireproof, temperature-controlled vault, which was left unscathed by the fire.
Since the fire, the Karpeleses have settled into a new home, but it will likely be a year and a half to rebuild, he said.
The Karpeles Manuscript Library is open from noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and admission is free. Click here for more information, or call 805.962.5322.