The Benjamin Franklin Branch Library began serving a diverse, multi-lingual, multi-cultural clientele long before diversity became the watchword of our times. While the community it serves has changed over the years, since the turn of the century, it has remained an area of low incomes and hard-working people trying to get jobs and educations and trying to make a better life for their children.
From early on this branch served speakers and readers whose languages included Spanish, Russian, Yiddish, Polish, and other languages. The library's staff has a long tradition of involvement in this community, working with its people to improve services and facilities and to create more opportunities for people to reach occupational and economic success.
Library service in Boyle Heights goes back to 1889 with the formation of the Boyle Heights Library Association, which offered a free reading room and books at a low rental fee. This reading room became a center for discussion and the exchange of ideas. In 1886 a mule car service had been established on First Street extending to Cummings, so this was a natural location for the library discussion center to flourish. In 1899 the reading room was taken over by the Los Angeles Public Library as its first delivery station, located in the Boyle Heights Drug Store near Cummings St. Community members ran the library until 1905 when it was moved to its own quarters in a store room at 1964 East First St. Here it was open three days a week under the supervision of Mary Dudley. In that year, she reported a book stock of 1322 and a circulation of over 20,000. By 1910, the library circulated over 25,000 items, and the station was established as the first branch library in the city of Los Angeles, open four days per week.
By 1914, the Boyle Heights Branch Library had a card catalog and a shelf list, a well-balanced collection of standard titles plus books in at least five languages, and it was receiving three deliveries per week from the Central Library. Circulation had reached 57,602.
By 1915 plans for a Carnegie building were under way. Circulation had grown to over 76,000 and the entire stock of Russian books had been transferred from the Central Library to Boyle Heights. Land was secured by members of the local community and in June 1916 the new building was completed. A Children's Librarian was added to the staff this year, and children's books were already accounting for one-third of the total circulation. Circulation in the first year of the new library was over 106,000, with 6760 cardholders. The new building had five rooms and an outdoor reading room. Two assembly rooms held many classes and meetings. Some of these included a Shakespeare club, a metal workers' association, and lots of neighborhood musical recitals. Children's Librarian Gladys Crowe canvassed the local schools and soon children's materials came to represent half the total circulation.
In 1917 over 25 club meetings were recorded per month at the library. Many of these meetings related to World War One, including a food conservation club and a Red Cross group whose purpose was to aid war victims. There were also classes in English and in Spanish.
By 1922, immigrants had become the majority population in the immediate neighborhood of the library. In 1923 Roosevelt High School was established, which led to a great increase in school reference work and changed the focus of the book collection more toward non-fiction. Also at this time, two new routes brought more traffic and activity into Boyle Heights. Also, with the development of some industries, more working people came into the area, particularly people of Japanese and Mexican descent. By 1927 library circulation had risen to more than 200,000. Also by this time, many of the Russian and Jewish residents had moved to the western part of town, and over half the Russian and Yiddish books were moved back to the Central Library. Use of the branch reached its height during the Depression, probably due to the large number of unemployed people with unprecedented amounts of time on their hands. For the fiscal year 1932-33, circulation rose to 316,585. From that time on circulation figures gradually fell, in part due to hard times and leaner budgets. The library began to have a more difficult time meeting the varying reading needs of a very diverse population including fiction readers, students, working adults, and many readers of foreign language materials.
During the late 1930s came the first reports that the "discipline problem was growing worse. Gangs were disorderly and audacious. One staff member had to be assigned to maintain discipline and the police gave little assistance. Older boys are out of school and unable to get jobs. They come to the library to create disturbances, congregate outside, and annoy passers-by. Council has asked for a foot patrol but without success." Circulation declined steadily through the late 1930s followed by a staff reduction for reasons of economy. The condition of the building, due to age and earthquakes, had seriously deteriorated as well. In 1941 a library bond issue was defeated but received a majority vote in Boyle Heights. The library was heavily involved in the campaign to pass the bond issue. Even though it failed, it strengthened community awareness of the library and the bond between the branch and the community. In 1942 the library underwent a further decline in use due largely to the transportation of the Japanese and Japanese-American population to concentration camps. The meeting rooms did remain in almost constant use, however, due to classes and meetings related to World War Two, including a group of air raid wardens. By 1943, the lack of staff caused little but routine work to be done.
In 1945 Hubert Frazier began an almost twenty-year tenure as Senior Librarian and Nettie Peltzman (now Frishman) became Children's Librarian. Nettie had grown up in the area, attending Hollenbeck Junior High School and Roosevelt High School. During her tenure deposits of children's books were placed at many of the local schools and Nettie and a Clerk would visit the schools on alternate weeks to circulate books. A deposit was also maintained at the Variety Boys Club. Under these two librarians' influence, the library began to recover from the doldrums of the depression and war. Both became very involved in the Boyle Heights community. Hubert served as secretary and president of the Hollenbeck Coordinating Council, served on the boards of the Los Angeles Music and Art School and Hollenbeck Social Center, and was a member of the Hollenbeck Health Council and Roosevelt Adult School Advisory Committee. Nettie was very active with the schools and also served on the board of directors of the Soto-Michigan Jewish Community Center.
By the early 1950s circulation had come down from the peak days of the 1930s, but the library continued to serve a diverse public. Three groups remained especially prominent: Jews, Japanese-Americans, and Mexican -Americans. The library's collection remained a multi-lingual one, with books in Russian, Yiddish, German, French, Polish, and Spanish. According to branch manager Frazier books on automobile repair, building trades, social services, psychology, and plays were especially popular. Around this time there were cuts made in the library's clerk-typist and Messenger Clerk categories. The senior's comments were familiar: "We can struggle along if staff stays healthy, but it is difficult to keep the books shelved and in order."
In 1953 there was considerable protest over the transfer of Children's Librarian Nettie Peltzman. School principals, teachers, parents, local organizations, and the City Councilman were quite upset. Senior Librarian Frazier saw this reaction as an endorsement of the library's and Mrs. Peltzman's excellent work with children: "Nettie Peltzman's work has been outstanding in all ways. She is an excellent Children's Librarian, a fine community worker, and has made many friends for the library. She will be hard to replace."
Hubert Frazier retired in 1964 after nearly 20 years as Senior Librarian. His legacy was one of increased visibility and respect for the library in the community. This was accomplished through his respect for and involvement in the community. Here is an interesting quote from one of his annual reports in which he comments on an increasing discipline problem among young adult library users. "Our rules must be logical and not governed by whim. An experienced librarian should be able to tell if the student comes to the library just to make trouble or to study. We believe that the modern youngster is pretty fine, we like them and want to help them. We have no feud with them. We should earn their respect by doing all we can to help them." In another report, he states "We have the respect of community organizations and the public. Many patrons speak of their pride in their library. We have an excellent, well-trained staff." In still another he writes directly to the library staff: "The Branch Librarian would like to thank the staff for their fine, cooperative spirit and we feel that this attitude is reflected in the relations with the public."
It has been striking, in reviewing annual reports going back to the 1920s, how similar the goals, problems, and concerns were in the past compared to today. The library seems to have gone through a number of cycles of good times and expansion followed by declines and struggles to maintain quality services. Certainly, technology and society have changed tremendously during the twentieth century, but many things remain the same: the importance of reaching children, the need to respect and be involved with the community, and the necessity of a motivated and well-trained staff.