Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 6, 2016

Los Angeles Central Library

This entry touches several of my recurring themes. It’s definitely “under Western skies,” because it’s in Los Angeles, California. It focuses on a historic architectural landmark, and, most notably, it’s a library. It’s the Central Library of the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL).

LA Cent Libe ext N Brad Nixon 3435 (493x640)

The LAPL is a massive organization, serving the largest population of any public library system in the United States. This article is about the Central, or main, Library, but there are also 72 branch libraries in the system. Overall, LAPL holds 6 million volumes.

Los Angeles got its first public library in 1872. Use required a $5 subscription.

By 1926, the growing city needed a new main library. Bertram Goodhue designed a fascinating mix of Mediterranean Revival and Egyptian themes. Things Egyptian were all the rage at the time. Your own town may have an old theater dripping in imitation Egyptian ornamentation. How does the Egyptian motif show up at the Central Library? Look at the top of the library tower:

LA Cent Libe pyramid Brad Nixon 3437 (640x480)

A tile-clad pyramid with suns.

The interior has a lot of Egyptian decor, too, but the exterior has the most dramatic examples.

LA Cent Libe S facade hor Brad Nixon 3444 (640x501)

Little remains of the library’s original character on the busy main entrance floor, which is rather compressed and crowded.

The second floor shows off the building’s vintage character in the soaring rotunda.

IMG_3400 LA Central Library rotunda Brad Nixon (640x479)

The chandelier merits a closer look.

IMG_3385 LA Central Library Brad Nixon (640x596)

The real focus, though, is on murals painted on canvas by Dean Cornwell, which took 5 years, completed in about 1933.

IMG_3389 LA Central Library mural Brad Nixon (640x476)

There are more than 300 characters in the murals that depict the history of California.

What is now the children’s section shows more of the original aspect of the library, including original murals.

IMG_3394 LA Central Library Brad Nixon (640x480)

Today’s Central Library is far larger than the 1926 structure. The impetus to expand the library came at a cost. In 1986, an arsonist set fire to the building. The structure was saved, but 400,000 volumes — 20% of the library’s collection — was lost, with substantial damage to many of the surviving holdings.

Through ambitious fundraising efforts and aggressive backroom dealing with influential members of the community that’s a story worth telling in its own right, the mammoth new Tom Bradley Wing, 400,000 square feet, opened in 1993.

LA Cent Libe atrium Brad Nixon 3417 (480x640)

The atrium extends through all 8 stories of the addition, 4 of them underground. Those fanciful chandeliers are by an artist named Therman Statom.

LA Cent Libe atrium Brad Nixon 3405 (640x480)

Today, the library supports readers in 29 languages, including children’s books in all those languages. There’s also language instruction in all 29, along with a language lab in the library’s original children’s section.

IMG_3424 LA Central Library Brad Nixon (640x480)

The LAPL collection includes over 2 million photos and images, bolstered by the photo morgue from the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner newspaper.

Researching a family genealogy? For that, you still use a classic card catalog, and to assist you, the library has its own dedicated genealogy librarian!

IMG_3413 LA Central Library Brad Nixon (640x480)

There’s also a large collection of maps, curated by (yes) a map librarian. The library’s large map collection expanded in 2012 when the librarian was invited to inspect the estate of John Feathers, who had recently died without heirs. The small Feathers house in L.A. held a collection of over a million maps,  more than doubling the size of the LAPL collection.

IMG_3416 LA Central Library Brad Nixon (640x535)

The numbers are impressive: 4,000 magazine titles; 6,000 cookbooks (did you know that cookbooks are in the Chemistry section?).

Like all successful libraries, LAPL is a not merely a passive repository of things. As only one example, it operates an ambitious program to help Angelenos pass the high school equivalency exam, Across all 72 branches, there are more than 18,000 programs each year that serve the 10 million or so people who live here.

If you’re a bibliophile, consider touring the Central Library on a visit to downtown Los Angeles. The library offers free guided tours that last about an hour. Check the website for scheduled times HERE.

If you’re a California resident, get a free library card while you’re there. It qualifies you to use the LAPL’s online system from wherever you live. (It also lets you park in the garage under the library for a couple of bucks.)

Need more information? Ask your librarian.

Some of the photographs in this post and select images from Under Western Skies are available on Click on linked photos or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2016, 2017



  1. Very interesting! It is, however, rather hard to believe that there is still an actual card catalog in use for genealogy!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. I plan to contact LAPL to see if I can determine what’s up with that. I’ll report back. Thanks for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

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