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The Rare Books Room at Central Library

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Birth of the Rare Books Room at Central Library

The first Rare Books room opened on October 3, 1993, when Central Library reopened after the two devastating fires of 1986. After the fires, the entire book collection at Central was handled several times for various types of processing. The number of books in the Rare Books collection grew tremendously and were all processed for the 1993 re-opening of Central Library.

Major subject areas in Rare Books include the history of California, the history of Mexico, the art and history of the book, natural history (particularly ornithology), architecture, costume and dress and voyages and travels.  A collection of ornithology books was purchased with Save the Books money that was raised after the fires.

Special collections include Cookbooks and Ephemera (including the Paul Fritzche Collection of Culinary Literature), the Restaurant Menu collection, the Casey Fashion Plates, the Lummis Autograph Collection, Travel Posters, Japanese prints, California prints, the Gladys English Collection of American Children’s Books, the Behymer Opera Collection, the Tom Owen Collection of Bookplate Art, the George B. Smith Biblioteca Taurina (collection of materials on bullfighting), and LAPL archives.

The Culinary collection is considered to be one of the largest in the United States, and the collection of 1,700 books on bullfighting is believed to be the largest in the U.S. In early 19th century Los Angeles there were bullfights, and by 1849 there was a permanent structure for bullfighting in the Chinatown area.

The number of books housed in Rare Books now totals over 22,000. Many of the items that make up the additional ‘special collections’ can be located via the Visual Collections link or under LAPL Indexes found in the Library Resources tab on the LAPL web site.  These include: the Autograph Collection index, the Casey Fashion Plate Collection Index, the Menu Collection, and much more.

Why do items come to be housed in the Rare Books collection? Some items are transferred because they fit the following criteria: they have become rare over time (pre-1850 items), new gifts that fit in a special collection, something that has become very valuable over time possibly because of world events, the poor condition of a high demand item that has loose parts or is in need of preservation, and books that librarians in subject departments have determined are unique and/or in need a higher level of preservation.

The manner in which the Rare Books Department was formed is revealed in the foreword of the book L.A.Pub.Library Since 1872: a Bicentennial Exhibition Honoring John D. Bruckman, 1928-1979 by previous Collection Manager Romaine Ahlstrohm:

     Since its founding in 1872, the Los Angeles Public Library’s collections have been built by many dedicated librarians whose names are now forgotten. But two names are remembered, with respect and gratitude, for their vision in acquiring and maintaining the rare and special materials. The first is that of Charles Fletcher Lummis, the flamboyant author and enthusiast of the Indian and Spanish Southwest, who was City Librarian from 1905-1910. The most extensive special collection, Californiana, Mexican, and pacific Voyages, was built by him when the books were still rather readily available at a fraction of their present cost. Even before Lummis became City Librarian, while he was the editor of Land of Sunshine (later Out West), the librarians asked his advice before purchasing Venegas’ Noticia de la California (1757) and Costanso’s Diario Historico (1770), to name only two titles to be found on a list of “important books accessioned” in 1903.   

     Over the years, the library has received many valuable gifts from generous donors. Among them are the Shakespeare Fourth Folio, The Dove’s Bible, Joyce’s Ulysses, and the limited edition of Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health. Other books, like Sander’s Reichenbachia and Sharpe’s Paradiseidae, were bought for the reference collections. The other name to be remembered is that of John D. Bruckman, Collection Development Manager from 1968 until his death in 1979. He created the Rare Book Vault to bring together the most important rarities: he added books from the stacks which had become rare years after their original purchase; he rebound or otherwise restored the most deteriorated and deserving items; and he bought important books to fill the gaps in the California collection. As a result of his efforts, the library now holds nearly all titles listed in the important California bibliography The Zamorano Eighty, and many titles in Cowan’s indispensable Bibliography of the History of California.  Bruckman did not live to see one of his dreams realized: a Rare Book Room, with adjacent stacks, and proper climate controls, where these treasures could  be safely stored, exhibited, and used by the people of Los Angeles to whom they ultimately belong.

We are very pleased to re-open the Rare Books Room to the public and return the space for its intended purpose.

Special Collections beyond the Rare Books Room

Special collections are not limited to the Rare Books room and are found throughout Central Library in various subject departments. Two of the largest special collections are our Photo Collection and our Map Collection, both of which are housed in the History Department of Central Library. In addition, there are special holdings in our branches system-wide, most notably the Hollywood Poster Collection at the Goldwyn Branch.

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