In the lowly toothbrush, a world of invention
Architecture slide librarian tackles collection issues on and off the clock

By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs


Ms. Snow & toothbrushes

Maryly Snow displays samples of her toothbrush collection.
Peg Skorpinski photo

09 May 2001 | Librarian Maryly Snow has a serious cataloging problem.

As guardian, by day, of a quarter million images in the architecture slide library, she’s spent more than two decades devising systems to capture, organize, store, retrieve and disseminate images — of tourist towns, sod roofs, greenhouses, obelisks or ogee arches throughout history and across the globe.

Off the clock, as curator of the International Toothbrush Collection, she oversees a vast cache of plaque removers from around the world.

More than a thousand, at latest count — from nifty children’s toothbrushes that play tunes or change colors as you brush, to models for patriotic grown-ups, whose bristle colors mimic the flags of the European Common Market nations.

Snow’s novel archive began in 1981 when, after years of orthodontia and oral surgery, she decided to do an art project involving toothbrushes. When friends started bringing her unusual examples, a collection was born, instead.

Today, sharing space with art-making materials in her West Oakland studio are toothbrushes in the form of dolphins, revolvers, cartoon characters and action figures; toothbrushes that supply their own toothpaste; toothbrushes that fit in a pocket or that fold for travel; toothbrushes with wavy handles, trendy colors and designer logos. A thousand solutions to the same design problem.

“I just think they’re endlessly interesting,” says Snow, admiring the evidence of human inventiveness in an everyday device.

One of her few pre-owned models — its bristles ground down to nothing by the tidal action of the Pacific — came by mail from Mendocino County.

“People bring me toothbrushes. I have to thank them,” says Snow. “I thought I better get organized.”

That’s where decades of documentation and cataloging expertise come in.

A graduate of Berkeley’s School of Library and Information Studies — now the School of Information Management and Systems — hired as architecture slide librarian in 1979, Snow has tussled with issues related to visual media since day one on the job.

“Slide libraries often don’t have a catalog,” she says. “Traditionally they have been understaffed and underfunded.” And slides don’t come with cataloging information, as books do.

Starting in an era before personal computers were commonly in use, Snow has guided the departmental library through the creation of a cross-indexed computer database of 45,000 images; negotiated licensing agreements with image vendors; and defended the free dissemination of knowledge in the Information Age.

Now, with the advent of the Internet, she is involved in the challenging transition from 35-millimeter format to digitized images available on the Web — a sea change she likens to the move from lantern slides to 35-millimeter slides in the 1940s — and in negotiating the contested terrain of fair-use Web sites.

Having bent her mind so thoroughly around curatorial issues, handling a mere thousand toothbrushes comes as second nature.

Hence the “handy dandy carbonless intake form” that goes with each toothbrush, her artifact numbering system, handwritten data fields (donor name, street address, donation date, country of acquisition and manufacture, etc.), form thank-you letter, and archival database.

As for what direction to go next with her toothbrush collection, the possibilities are endless — especially with retirement perhaps five years down the road.

Snow hopes not to go down in history as “the toothbrush lady;” her painting canvases and a brand new etching press await her in her studio, as well.

Still, it would be interesting, she concedes, to research toothbrush patents or the history of the toothbrush. And with a scanner at home, there’s added danger. “I might have to make a visual database,” she says.

Maryly Snow’s personal Web site is She will be featured, in her studio, on the PBS show “Right on the Money,” at 10 a.m., May 20, on KQED TV; the program deals with planning for retirement.


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