Library service to the Little Tokyo Community began in 1977 when the Los Angeles Public Library responded to residents’ requests for local library service by establishing a weekly bookmobile stop in Little Tokyo. Residents organized the Friends of Little Tokyo Public Library Service and began working to establish a full-service branch. In 1978 it was renamed Friends of Little Tokyo Branch Library and incorporated as a non-profit in 1982.
In 1984, the Friends assisted the library by approaching the Centenary United Methodist Church, which generously pledged 2,500 square feet of free space for the branch. The following year, the Board of Library Commissioners resolved to open an experimental branch. The Friends then raised $50,000 to outfit the space for library use and the branch opened on April 29, 1989. This experimental branch and was an immediate, resounding success with 74,000 items circulating in 1989 and increasing to the 122,000 level in 1991.
Widespread support from the Friends and the community played a major role in the continued growth of the branch. Yasuda Trust & Banking Ltd. Generously gave $100,000 to the branch. This gift established the Yasuda Trust Japanese Heritage Collection, which includes English-language materials about Japanese and Japanese-American culture and heritage.
Due to its popularity, in 1992 the Board of Library Commissioners designated the burgeoning branch as a permanent facility. The Friends formed an expansion committee and were instrumental in locating a larger rental space in the Neptune Building at Alameda and Third streets, which opened to the public on April 7, 1995. The City Council approved a 10-year lease and the Friends contributed $35,000 for furniture and equipment at the new location, which doubled the square footage to 5,000. Concurrently, the branch was automated with an online public access catalog.
The passage of the $178.3 million branch construction bond Proposition DD in 1998 provided funds to rebuild and expand 32 branches, including the construction of a permanent facility for the Little Tokyo Branch. The new structure, with a construction budget of $3.3 million, was a 150% increase to 12,500 square feet and was dedicated and opened to the public on September 8, 2005. CWA AIA, Inc. and A.J. Lumsden & Associates designed the facility to reflect traditional aspects of Japanese architecture and building materials including three serene interior gardens and landscaping in the Los Angeles Street entryway.
The past, present, and future of the Japanese American community are the subject of works created by two artists; Nancy Uyemura’s two canvasses title “God’s Promise” and “Whispers in the Wind,” and Jacki Apple’s series of 21 laminated marble squares with photographic images and a banner featuring a poem in English and Japanese.
A collaborative venture between the Los Angeles Public Library and the Redbird-Vibiana to develop the easement area on the west side of the branch was completed with the opening of the Library Garden at Redbird-Vibiana on September 12, 2017. This includes an open garden space that the library and Redbird use on a scheduled basis for special programs and events. As a result of this construction, patrons can also access the library from Second Street.
At the threshold of major developments in the surrounding neighborhood the Little Tokyo Branch Library continues to adapt, promoting Japanese literature and culture as well as serving the diverse community of residential and business people who live and work in its urban setting.