Everett Robbins Perry: Librarian with a Vision

Central Docents, Central Library,
Everett Robbins Perry 1876-1933
Everett Robbins Perry 1876-1933

Our free art and architecture tour of L.A.'s central library begins in the 1926 Goodhue Building, famous for its sculpture, murals, painted ceilings, and wonderful architecture. The building has another great feature, something which seems ordinary to modern eyes, but which wasn't ordinary at all in 1926. In the Goodhue Building, the reading rooms were placed along the exterior, with big windows, so that the rooms are full of natural light.

History Department in the 1930’s, now home to the  Children’s Department
History Department in the 1930’s, now home to the  Children’s Department
Perry’s Floor plan for the main floor of the LA Library
Perry’s Floor plan for the main floor of the library

The library’s layout was the creation of Everett Robbins Perry, City Librarian from 1911 to 1933. Perry also insisted that circulation desks and card catalogs be placed near the reading rooms, for the convenience of library patrons. 

The Grand Rotunda with built-in circulation desks c.1926
The Grand Rotunda with built-in circulation desks c.1926

In 1916, Perry explained his ideas about library design, in a speech he gave when the Cahuenga Branch opened: "A generation ago a visitor to an American public library would have found in evidence a far different spirit from what prevails today. Books were kept on closed shelves and the librarian constituted himself their guardian. You were obliged to consult a printed catalogue … fill out an application blank, and wait patiently until the library attendant brought your book… The result was to discourage and drive away the very readers whom the public library were designed to assist."

In Perry's libraries, books were on open shelves, library cards were readily available, and "every effort is made to render the use of the library easy."

Everett Perry was born in Massachusetts in October of 1876.  He studied at  Harvard,  then attended the prestigious New York State Library School. After graduation in 1903, he worked at the New York Public Library, during which time the NYPL moved into its iconic location on Fifth Avenue. Perry had big dreams and ambitions. His goal was to become the director of a large public library, a goal he achieved in 1911, when he was hired as Los Angeles's Library Director.

Everett Robbins Perry married Lilla Simmons in June 1905
Everett Robbins Perry married Lilla Simmons in June 1905

At the age of 35, Perry left the east coast with his wife and young son for his new job in Los Angeles. The Perry family settled on Kingsley Drive, where Lilla gave piano lessons and filled the house with Japanese art and antiques.  
They had four more children—one of whom, Edward Caswell Perry, followed in his father's footsteps, and was Library Services Director in Burbank from 1952 to 1968.

Everett Perry took over a library in disarray. The staff was demoralized—there had been four directors in the last eleven years—and the library was housed in a department store. The budget was deteriorating, but as Los Angeles grew, so did the demand for library services. Between 1911 and 1921, as the city's population doubled, library usage tripled.  Perry, who was said to have "the granite of old New England in his foundations, took charge.

He organized the library into subject departments, a system that became the model for other libraries across the country. He brought standards and professionalism to the library's training program. In 1911, the library had a staff of 98, fewer than 200,000 books, and 12 branches. Under Perry, Central developed and housed an extensive patents collection, keyed to local industries, and served the research needs of the motion picture business, bringing a touch of glamour to the library.  

From the moment Perry arrived in Los Angeles, Perry lobbied for a permanent home for the Central Library.  After nearly a decade, his tireless efforts paid off when the city passed a series of bond issues to fund the construction of what we now call the Historic Goodhue building. When Los Angeles’ new Central Library opened in 1926, Perry’s hand and vision were evident in both its design and prevailing philosophy.

Some people described Perry as authoritarian and conservative. He had few hobbies or interests outside his work, except, perhaps, chess. In fact, the chess column of the Los Angeles Times ran a personal note from the chess editor, mourning Perry's passing. But it takes a single-minded person to champion and see through a project of such magnitude. One colleague said that for Perry, people “existed either to advance or impede the work of the Los Angeles Public Library.” Yet he was always fair and courteous.  He protected the library staff from the city's political vagaries, and knew the name of each of the Library's staff members, which had grown to 700, some of them called him "Father." On his death in October of 1933, flags on City buildings flew at half-mast. 

When Perry died in 1933, the Los Angeles Public Library system had the third largest circulation in the country, with 1.5 million books and 48 branches. 

Everett Perry was a moving force in the years-long struggle for a permanent central library building and it stands today as a testament to his vision and innovation. When the Goodhue Building was dedicated Perry said, "We have struggled for it by day, and dreamed of it by night."

The Los Angeles Central Library in 1926
The Los Angeles Central Library in 1926

Perry’s leadership of the Los Angeles Library ended in the fall of 1933, when he died after a brief illness at the age of 57. The Board of Library Commissioners called Perry's untimely death "the most irreparable disaster to befall our library since its establishment," saying "his was an unfaltering, indomitable leadership of hard work and farsighted plans." The library commissioned a bronze tablet with Perry's profile, "to commemorate how wholly and truly the Los Angeles Public Library of today is founded on his life." That tablet, by sculptor Lee Lawrie, is in the Rotunda to this day. 


"Everett Robbins Perry 1876-1933. Librarian 1911-1933. Here in these halls the petty distractions of the earthly pilgrimage may be laid aside and their place taken by the inspiration and serenity that come from communion with the poet, the prophet, the philosopher, the artist, the scientist, indeed with all those who themselves have caught a glimpse of the things that are not transitory in their natures but have eternal values."

Please join us for a docent-led tour of the Central Library.

—Written by docent Kate Kaplan