Matt Driscoll

He spent years cataloging Tacoma’s ‘good, bad, ugly.’ Now irreplaceable historian to retire

Like so many good nonfiction tales, Brian Kamens’ — at least for the purpose of this column — begins in an unlikely spot.

It’s in a station wagon used for deliveries, to be exact, in 1976.

Kamens was 23 at the time. He’d arrived in Tacoma from Connecticut six months earlier. It was largely youthful chance and luck. He’d been laid off. He had a friend serving at McChord Air Force Base. One thing led to another.

Kamens needed a job, and driving carloads full of books from branch to branch for the Tacoma Public Library system seemed like it would do the trick.

The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s a fitting cliche in this case because Kamens’s contributions to helping Tacoma understand its past — and its history — are nearly unparalleled.

In 1982, a few years after he first climbed into the front seat of that station wagon, Kamens found his way to the Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room — where he’s now served as supervisor and lead historian for the last 15 years.

In all, it’s been a good, long run.

But next week, Kamens, 67, will retire — riding off into the sunset and taking with him an encyclopedic knowledge of Tacoma and the calm, quiet charm that’s made him a local institution over the years.

“We lose a bit of the human side of our story,” said local historian Michael Sullivan of Kamen’s pending retirement.

“We lose a face — a human face — on all that information,” Sullivan added, describing Kamens as “a treasure.”

It’s a common sentiment, because when you needed an answer, Kamens could almost always find it. Whether it was a reporter calling on deadline or a tavern full of locals hoping to settle a drunken barroom debate, Kamens has been the go-to guy for nearly four decades.

Kamens has cherished every bit of it, he said.

“I believe you don’t really know entirely where you’re going unless you know what’s happened before you and where you come from,” Kamens explained of his passion for history, particularly Tacoma’s.

It’s a city that fascinates him, he said, including “the good, the bad and the ugly.”

For the uninitiated, the Northwest Room is housed in an expansive rotunda within the original Carnegie Library building downtown. It’s filled with just about everything you’d ever want to know about Tacoma and Pierce County, from the library’s special collections to genealogy archives, maps and photos, newspaper clippings and old postcards.

The room is a tool and a cherished monument.

If we’re being honest, however, it’s been Kamens — as much as the yellowing books in the stacks — who has brought it to life.

Shortly after starting at the Northwest Room, Kamens recalls setting out on a project — perusing every daily newspaper on file, starting from 1883. Ostensibly, the work was to help compile the Northwest Room’s building index archive, but you get the sense when talking to Kamens that he would have done it for free.

Originally, that’s just what Kamens did — working on the project during lunch breaks. Eventually, the library made him stop so he’d be paid for the work.

Kamens made it all the way up to 1970, he said, describing the achievement as a “natural stopping point” he wanted to reach before retirement.

Fittingly, the effort took him his entire career at the Northwest Room, from 1982 up until three weeks ago.

It’s just one of many examples of how Kamens has contributed to the Northwest Room and, in doing so, Tacoma’s understanding of its history.

Sullivan was quick to note other projects that Kamens was instrumental in, including all the archival material that’s now available from the Northwest Room in digital form.

On the side, Kamens has co-authored books, co-founded the Tacoma Historical Society and contributed to the preservation of a long list of city landmarks, from the Pantages Theater to the newly opened McMenamins Elks Lodge.

In retirement, he will be sorely missed, but not forgotten, Sullivan said, because of what he leaves behind at the Northwest Room.

“It would be a profound tragedy if he had it all in his head. But what I think is really selfless about Brian is he did it and then translated it all into an accessible form for the future,” Sullivan explained. “He’s been our bridge, I think, from all the years of conventional library work and manuscript collection building to the digital age. He’s the guy who did the grunt work of converting all that information over.”

Former Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma, another history buff, also offered praise to Kamens in retirement, albeit of the bittersweet variety.

“I have mixed feelings. I’m happy for him that he’s moving on into retirement. I know he’s looking forward to it,” Baarsma said.

“But, gosh, he’s just irreplaceable.”

With Kamens’ last day at the library scheduled for Friday, Nov. 15, it’s a fact Tacoma Public Library Director Kate Larsen is well aware of.

When it comes to replacing Kamens, the library won’t even try, she said.

Yes, there will still be knowledgeable folks helping visitors navigate the Northwest Room, but there will be a big void as well.

“I think that’s one of the big things we’ve had to come to terms with,” Larsen said. “He’s irreplaceable, we can’t replace him. So the work of the Northwest Room will go on, but it is never going to look the same way.”

That’s the thing about history — nothing stays the same forever. And when it comes to Tacoma’s, it’s easy to track changes by a new building on the skyline or small bits lost to time or so-called progress.

The reality is history is the story of people, and how they’ve lived and contributed to what we know today.

Ultimately, the archival record will show that Kamens left his mark.

“It’s almost like we have an anchor, and we’ll kind of be unmoored,” Larsen said of life after Kamens at the Northwest Room.

A city knows the feeling.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.
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