Save the Books! - part 1 by Sheryn Morris - Librarian, Literature & Fiction Department
In retrospect it is ironic that the fire took place when it did, April 29, 1986. On that day, progress was quietly continuing with plans for renovation of the original Central Library and a new multi-level addition. Betty Gay, director of Central Library, and Norman Pfeiffer, architect, were looking over plans, and the future for Central Library never looked brighter. For about twenty years plans and proposals had dead-ended, and dire predictions about a major conflagration made by the Los Angeles Fire Department had done nothing to hasten a resolution that would satisfy various community groups. It is no exaggeration that many Angelenos had a lack of interest, even cynicism, about the future of the old building. Feelings, attitudes, and community involvement were about to change—overnight.
On April 29, 1986, Carlton Norris looked down from the 32nd floor of the ARCO Tower, and saw the Los Angeles Fire Department, in full force, battling a fire coming from the west side of the Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Library and thought, “Something has to be done to help the library.” Even though he was an executive with ARCO, he had an extraordinary love and appreciation for libraries and librarians. With the approval from Lodwrick “Lod” Cook, ARCO’s Chairman and CEO, phone banks immediately were set up on an empty floor of the building. The next day, April 30, 1986, ARCO invited Library Administration to occupy the 35th floor of the ARCO Tower. This would be the genesis for a major private and public effort to reach out and engage Angelenos in restoring what had been lost and would prove to be a phenomenal success. However, on April 30, 1986 library staff and the public were in shock and could not think or feel anything but overwhelmed and devastated.
Very quickly Lod Cook, asked Carlton Norris to head a campaign and devote a major amount of time to raising money for books. Norris had never done fundraising, so he hired a professional fundraiser, Jim Glass, but also wanted librarians to be involved and turned to library administration for help. Betty Gay, Director of Central Library assigned Judy Ostrander, Librarian in Business and Economics, and Sheila Nash, Librarian in General Library Services to work at ARCO. The two librarians started working immediately with Carlton Norris. Later both of them were required by ARCO to go through a formal interview process to continue working on the project.
In asking librarians to be part of the project, Norris recognized and appreciated the expertise and knowledge that is involved in librarianship, and he knew how special Central Library was. In 1986, the library’s collection was hard copy books and periodicals. There was a film collection, a vinyl collection known as LPs, but there was no automated catalog, only drawers of card catalogs. There was no internet.
Norris also knew that LAPL’s Central Library’s collection was the largest of any public library west of the Mississippi River, and held resources not found anywhere else in the United States, which is still true today. According to Kenneth Starr, former State Librarian of California, the Central Library has a collection distinguished, “...especially in its depth of materials” and therefore...manages to be distinguished, simultaneously, as a collection and a public service agency.” Starr recognized the unique characteristics of the LAPL system and stated, “A municipal library—even in Los Angeles, the original mega-horizontal city!—needs centrality, focus, institutional depth, if it is properly to serve its branches. Each and every branch, in other words, takes its strength, not from its own limited resources, but from the Central Library which backs it up.”
Judy Ostrander and Sheila Nash were the Save the Books lead librarians.
Judy Ostrander was a Librarian in LAPL’s Business and Economics Department. She had organized workshops for the very active business community in downtown, and was dedicated to helping patrons connect with the great resources (all hard copy way back then) that were in the Business and Economics Department. According to Judy, “I wanted them to have a good experience and to come back. I wanted them to make a connection with the Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Library, and they had to be in the building to do that.” There was nothing like live interaction with patrons who could ask questions about previously unknown treasures that only an experienced librarian could provide. In addition, there was her methodology of utilizing resources found in other subject departments, such as the Social Register or Blue Book, and this thinking outside the box would be invaluable. Judy said, “The library is not the building, but the collection.” The collection was created and maintained by the staff, and there is a melded relationship between the two.
Prior to working for LAPL, Sheila Nash had worked for Tandem Productions, organizing TV writer/producer Norman Lear’s papers and company files, and as a researcher for Tandem/TAT. She had cataloged exhibition catalogs for the Craft and Folk Art Museum; was a librarian and cataloger of German books at a community college; and at LAPL starting in January 4, 1984, she worked in General Reader Services and General Library Services. Sheila remembers being approached by Betty Gay, who asked her if she would like to work with the ARCO staff and another librarian on a fundraising campaign. Sheila said, “I was flattered and quite overwhelmed at the prospect. She let me know that Judy Ostrander would be the other librarian, and that is when I felt relieved and assured that with her expertise I could be of use.”
Judy and Sheila worked on Save the Books from 1986 - 1988. During that time, these two librarians quickly established a very active routine, working closely on a daily basis with Carlton Norris and his staff. They created a plan to engage the people of Los Angeles in a giant fundraising campaign. Every day they worked on developing how to achieve certain goals, and at the end of the day would set new goals to be worked on the next day. Two Administrative Assistants, Ed Desjardins and Iva Adams quickly typed up all the proposals and ideas, including lists of individuals, companies, and key contact people, social and cultural groups and organizations, and their key people. As a working duo, the librarians were dedicated to the project and backed by the ARCO people.
Together they worked on the strategies and plans to save the books, which will be discussed in next week’s excerpt.
Sheryn Morris, Reference Librarian II, works at LAPL's Central Library, Literature & Fiction Department, and is the editor/contributor for LAPL Reads. Past work: Children's Librarian, Beverly Hills Public Library and Los Angeles Public Library; adult reference librarian at Palos Verdes Library District, Redondo Beach Public Library, Long Beach Community College; catalog reconversion project at UCLA; management of law firm libraries; and substituted for numerous public library systems in Los Angeles County. As a Children's Librarian, she was a storyteller; as a Reference Librarian she regularly was invited to present book reviews for adults at public and private institutions.
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.