From Belle to Burden and Back Again - part 1 by James Sherman, Librarian, Literature & Fiction Department
The reopening of the Central Library in 1993 was all the sweeter because it had dodged demolition too many times over the previous decades. Those who attended the opening in 1926 couldn't have imagined that what was then called "one of the noblest buildings in America" would too soon be considered a burden. For twenty years after its opening, the venerable building provided excellent service to the expanding population of L.A., who made the library system tops in the nation in circulation. When the Great Depression hit, lines were so long that the entry had to be regulated. The City of L.A.'s Central Library was an essential part of its metropolitan life.
The postwar population boom sealed the L.A. Metro area's status as the second-largest in the nation, and pressures began to grow on the Los Angeles Public Library system in general and on Central Library in particular. The GI Bill ensured that the total student population was growing faster even than the regular population, and the rise of scientific and technical fields concurrent with the space race and the defense and aviation industries resulted in a proliferation of journals and thus storage problems. Even as quickly as the population was growing—in the 1950s by 20 percent—the number of reference questions outpaced it, doubling during the same period. The once-beloved central library that had been a symbol of hope for the growing city had become a problem. Built for a staff of 200 and a collection of 300,000 items, it was now cramped for the staff of over 400 and collection of 1,250,000 items and growing fast.
Green Report: In December 1966 the Board of Library Commissioners produced "LOS ANGELES PUBLIC LIBRARY CENTRAL LIBRARY OF LOS ANGELES REPORT ON THE PRESENT BUILDING WITH RECOMMENDATIONS FOR A FACILITY TO MEET SERVICE REQUIREMENTS," better known as The Green Report (only because its cover was greenish in color). The Green Report recommended demolition of the Goodhue building and construction of a new modern building on the same location.
The Green Report summed up all the problems with the Goodhue Building. The growth of collections had outstripped storage space, so that only 15 percent of books were available to patrons on open shelves, and about 200,000 books were offsite at a facility on Glendale Blvd. Retrieving those books could take up to a week. Because of these issues, circulation at Central Library dropped for the very first time, as branches such as those at Woodland Hills and the West Valley were experiencing much higher circulation.
The litany of problems posed by the old building continued: Parking provisions were inadequate for the 54 percent of patrons who arrived by car. The library couldn't maintain standards of service thanks to "delay and confusion" caused by storage issues, and those same storage issues not only resulted in damage to and deterioration of materials, but it was also liable to cause a "catastrophic situation in the near future." In addition, there was no space or ideas for new media, such as audiovisual and microfilm. The report is rife with pictures of patrons crammed at tables with no elbow room, contrasted with other cities' modern libraries, which appear as spacious as an airport terminal. The Green Report went on to carp about the "ancient furniture, the poor lighting resulting in the inability to use typewriters," not enough electrical outlets, dilapidated restrooms, and on a quaint human interest note, "no facilities for such ordinary comforts as a cup of coffee or a cigarette."
This was the verdict from the commission and from librarians who had to work at Central Library: the place was terrible.
The Green Report suggested the answer: a new library, bigger and more modern, on the current location. This would involve tearing down the Central Library, in order to construct a single-story behemoth on the site—specifically one with an open plan with large as possible horizontal space, open stacks, all functions under one roof, and onsite parking for staff and visitors. The Green Report's recommendation was for an independent building housing the entire collection on the minimum number of floors with maximum square footage for floors. The report was the official position of the Library Commissioners and was to hang like the Sword of Damocles over the Central Library.
"The Library is a magnificent institution which nothing can hinder, and nothing has ever tried to hinder, except peanut politics”—Charles Lummis
"City Hall is getting its guidance from people who earn their daily bread designing and building large buildings. Needless to say, they are all for tearing down the old and putting up the new one. Library management is totally committed to the same policy." —John Weaver
As befits Los Angeles, where everything seems to be a land deal, the call for a new library brought politics and money quickly to the fore. Many people, including City Council members, questioned the need for a Central Library at all. After a 1967 bond issue for library construction failed, City Council members said the city would never get a new central library through bond, and therefore it would have to be privately financed, with the idea that "Branches stand a better chance by themselves because people hesitate to travel downtown." Many saw a zero-sum issue with the downtown library and the branches. Even as late as 1975, Marvin Braude of the City Council's finance committee said that the Central Library issue was divisive, and no funds were available anyway. "We're arguing purposelessly. The need to improve local library service is greater".
The few Central Library proponents were silenced by powerful agendas. In 1969 the Southern California chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) proposed preservation of the Central Library building with an underground connection to a new wing on adjoining land. But the City Administrative Officer, Dr. C. Erwin Piper, rejected the proposal, supposedly because it came with no funding plan. As it turned out, Piper had plans for a new library to be one of the anchors of a massive Skid Row redevelopment project.
A big new library meant big money which created interest as well as problems. In 1970, RFPs for a new library were sent out, but builders declined the opportunity when they were asked to provide capital.
James Sherman is a reference librarian in the Literature & Fiction Department at Central Library. He has worked as a young adult librarian, a community college reference & instructional librarian, and a cataloger & electronic resources librarian at a law firm. He has an M.F.A from UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television and has worked for the Sundance Institute as well as in development and physical production. James also worked as a grant writer for arts organizations and as a consultant researcher for the NYC Board of Education and the United Nations Development Programme.
Feels Like Home: Reflections on Central Library: Photographs From the Collection of Los Angeles Public Library (2018) is a tribute to Central Library and follows the history from its origins as a mere idea to its phoenix-like reopening in 1993. Published by Photo Friends of the Los Angeles Public Library, it features both researched historical accounts and first-person remembrances. The book was edited by Christina Rice, Senior Librarian of the LAPL Photo Collection, and Literature Librarians Sheryn Morris and James Sherman.The book can be purchased through the Library Foundation of Los Angeles Bookstore.