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).
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:
A tile-clad pyramid with suns.
The interior has a lot of Egyptian decor, too.
Little remains of the library’s original character on the busy main entrance floor, which is rather compressed and crowded. The central space does feature a jazzy treatment on the ceiling by Renee Petropoulos.
The second floor shows off the building’s vintage character in the soaring rotunda.
The chandelier merits a closer look.
The real focus, though, is on murals painted on canvas by Dean Cornwell, which took 5 years, completed in about 1933.
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.
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.
The atrium extends through all 8 stories of the addition, 4 of them underground. Those fanciful chandeliers are by an artist named Therman Statom.
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.
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!
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.
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.)
Before we leave, one more note. From a massive, world-class facility like the Los Angeles Central Library to the small library in your home town, one common force makes them all function: Librarians.
Need more information? Ask your librarian.
© Brad Nixon 2017. Some photos © Marcy Vincent 2017, all rights reserved.