A Docent’s Life for Me - part 1 by Delores McKinney, Central Library Docent
I have always loved books. When I was five, I pleaded with my mother for books...Little Golden Books, about lambs and engines and whatever...and she helped me learn to read them. In junior high and high school, I was a library helper. (I learned to make change when a kind librarian taught me not to try to do mental math—subtracting the fine [35 cents] from the money given [$1]. I always got lost somewhere between “borrowing” and “carrying” and felt stupid. She counseled, “Just start with the fine and then take out the money to get to the amount they gave you.” Wow! If you know the trick, it’s so simple!).
I love to read. It’s my greatest pleasure in life. But it’s more...I love books! No Kindle or e-books for me. I love the feel, the weight, the smell, the act of holding a book, turning the pages, choosing the just-right bookmark when I start down a new path of adventure and learning. I love new books, so crisp and bright and pristine. There’s even a “new book” smell! But older books are also wonderful, filled with memories of previous readers: dog ears (I gently unfold the corner), sometimes underlines or “corrections” or opinions, drips, wrinkles, frayed page edges...
One day, in the Los Angeles Times, a “volunteer opportunity” caught my eye. I had been looking for an appealing way to spend some free time and help out somewhere. “The Los Angeles Public Library is seeking volunteers to prepare books for the opening of the temporary location of the Central Library”, and a phone number. Books...Library...Perfect!
I called the phone number and was told to come to 433 South Spring Street (parking provided). When I arrived, I was sent up to an upper floor of “The Annex”, the building next to the library’s future home. I walked into a huge open space, with people working at long tables. Scattered among the tables were several pallets, piled high with cardboard boxes. I was shown to an empty chair at a table and given my instructions. “Get a box from the pallet. Take out each book, inspect it for damage, wipe it down with this (provided) cloth. Take it to the card catalog (which had been moved to a nook of the warehouse-like space), find the catalog card, put it in the book so it’s visible, and draw a small red (red pencil provided) circle on the title page, return it to the box. When all the box’s books are done, put the box over there (point) and get a new box.” (Next time you pull a book off central’s shelves, look at the title page. If there’s a red circle, you have a survivor in your hands!) Oh, yes. One more detail. “If you don’t find the book’s catalog card, write the title, author, and Dewey number on a slip (small stack provided) and put it in the book.”
I got the chance to work twice before the job was done. What fun!! Every box had surprises...delights. I never knew what the books would be: science, history, art, business, religion. Like Little Jack Horner, I could “stick in my thumb (and attached hand) and pull out a plum!” We volunteers often showed off our prizes to each other...and, of course, we had all been told to take anything published before 1850 or that looked unusual or valuable to one of the librarians supervising, for his/her decision. (The rare books collection grew fourfold, thanks to this book-by-book look at the accumulation of 100 years of book purchases.) We didn’t know at the time but our “survey” had a second purpose: preparing the books for entry into the library's first computerized catalog. By today’s standards, the computer was a Model-T but it was the beginning.
Now, the pallets were empty. Job finished. Well, maybe not... A couple of months later, “volunteers to help shelve books, to prepare for the opening of the temporary...” This time, I came with two friends. Again, we worked twice, putting those boxes of books onto the new shelving in the departments.
The term “back-breaking” was always just an expression until we starting putting books up in social sciences on the temp’s 5th floor. Four boxes arrive. We shelved them, nice and neat. Six more boxes arrive. One will fit at the end of our previous work. The other five? Right in the middle of those nice neat rows... Move these books down three shelves. Put them in there. Four more boxes. Yes, you guessed it. Move those books again.
We worked hard and left exhausted but happy, leaving behind orderly rows of information, waiting for someone to pull one of them down and use the information to advance...or even change...their life.
Some months later, yet another “Volunteer Opportunity” appeared in the Times. This one said the Los Angeles Public Library docents were recruiting volunteers for training to conduct tours of the central library. There was a phone number if you were interested. Interested? It took my breath away!
Over the years, Central Library's librarians had taken interested school groups and adult organizations on requested tours. Proposition 13, in 1978, drastically slashed funds to the library. Every budget had to be cut “to the bone”. Central’s director, Loyce Pleasants, and her assistant, Betty Gay, began to look into volunteers to take over tours. In 1980, the first library docent class graduated. Though docents are a common sight at museums, LAPL’s docents are believed to be the first associated with a public library.
I called and an application was sent to me. I filled it out, mailed it back, and was asked to come in for an interview. I told no one (except my husband) that I had applied. I didn’t want to be embarrassed if I was turned down. I had no degrees, no credentials...I was a waitress. I felt honored when my interview resulted in my being invited to training!
There were only four of us in that first class after the library re-opened on Spring Street. I still, 27 years later, look back on my 12-week training as one of the most amazing experiences of my life! I traded shifts with an amiable waiter at my job so I could have Wednesdays free. Each week, I drove downtown (an experience in itself) to learn about a new set of treasures in another of Central’s departments. No room here to catalog the wonders. They’re all still there, available if sometimes unnoticed, overshadowed now by the overwhelming beauty of the restored Goodhue. There’s a very substantial reason Los Angeles is always first or second in public library statistics...and it’s not the art.
The temp was a unique space for a library. It wasn’t in a “good’ part of downtown, Spring Street, on the edge of Skid Row. Designed by Los Angeles’s premier architectural father/son team, John and Donald Parkinson in 1928, the 11-story Title Insurance Building was an Art Deco delight in itself. Like nesting dolls, the library was a treasure within a treasure, spread over six public floors. The children’s department perched to the left of the beautiful marble and bronze lobby. The huge, largely open space of the 2nd floor (with historic elements still in place) was divided between art/recreation in the front and history/genealogy in the back. In the northwest corner, the old Title Insurance vault, complete with a foot-thick steel door and combination lock (just like in the movies!), was packed with rare books. Oh! And the pneumatic tube system that once rushed messages and important paperwork from one floor to another was still there...though I think its useful time was over.
The 3rd floor was smaller and stripped of the Art Deco detail by an earlier design center remodel, as were all the other upper floors. Business/economics shared it with the copy center (which included the historic magazines and newspapers). Four was science/technology, five was social sciences, and six was again divided between literature/fiction and international languages (the once-used term “foreign” having been banished).
We docents loved the library and tried—really hard—to bring tours in, but we didn’t have much luck. A few boy scout troops, a few ESL, English as a second language, tours from downtown’s Evans adult school...that was pretty much the total of people wanting to see the temp.
With so few tours and time on our hands, most docents chose a department to work in, helping with projects the librarians no longer had time for. There were docents cataloging menus, working with photos in history, playbills in literature. A docent put together a scrapbook of clippings on the fire; another, a scrapbook of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Both are invaluable resources now. My project was great fun, if not of great value. I worked at cataloging the doll collection in children’s, an informal accumulation over many years of ethnic dolls, illustrating national and/or regional costumes. They were brought back by vacationing librarians, for use in programs and talks, to help young people understand and develop a world view of their own.
Valuable or not, I loved the countless hours I spent with those little persons. I learned a lot, using Central Library’s resources to trace “doll marks”, identify national costumes, and more. I helped settle those children’s denizens into acid-free tissue and boxes, patting down hair, straightening limbs, easing wrinkles, and creases in costumes. It would keep them safe...and ready for their next appearance. And we all marked time until The Big Day.
I considered myself a novice docent, not much experience, a true “newbie”. So I was startled when I was asked to become the docent president in 1992. Whoa! I felt brand-new...I had never even been in a “club” since high school, let alone be the leader. But the core docents, the ones who had kept the organization going, promised to stand behind me and help...so I agreed.
A buzz was starting around the temp. The new construction on the Goodhue had “topped out” with flags and a ceremony. We were going to move again...back...SOON! We recruited that spring and got a huge class, 30 or so people eager to learn and be a part of the next big step...the Goodhue. During the training, there was one wonderful day when Betty Gay, now Central Library’s director, came to tell us about the progress. We gathered around a long table in history, many standing behind the seats, and listened while she described what was happening and then showed us samples of carpeting and upholstery...beautiful samples! She made it real...it was going to happen!
That summer, the library also began a campaign to issue the new library cards, in advance of the re-opening. No more little white paper cards! The card was now sturdy plastic, bar-coded, snazzy dark blue, and orange. “Check It Out!” was printed boldly on it! Volunteers, many of them docents, sat at tables and took applications...around downtown, at events, at shopping malls, anywhere foot traffic brought people. I spent a hot day at the zoo, greeting and explaining and collecting applications.
We docents were invited for a “construction tour”, led by City Architect Bill Holland. We donned hard hats at the 5th Street entrance and enjoyed an insider look at the work, with an insider to comment! My best memory? We climbed the north stairs, past the Sphinxes under their protective canvas covers, and down the short hall to the Rotunda. There were heavy plastic curtains closing off the entryway. We brushed them aside and stepped in... I can still remember the moment of entering that space. My first thought was that it was like a cathedral...elegant, late-afternoon shadowed, austere. The marvelous chandelier was on the floor in the center of the space but the Cornwell murals stood guard to protect it. Afterward, we walked down the second-floor hall to an abrupt end and looked over into the gaping hole of the future atrium.
We knew that when we moved back to the Goodhue, we were not going to be able to use the tour we had learned at the temp. We needed brand new ideas. So, five of us, the "tour committee", went on another visit to Goodhue, this time taking notes and drawing little maps and looking critically at what should, or should not, be included in an hour. Our ideas were combined (and underwent a lot of debate) and we came up with the new tour, limited to the 1st and 2nd floors since that’s all we could see, the atrium still just a huge empty space.
[Though the physical building remains closed, you can take a virtual tour of Central Library.]
Delores McKinney dug up her Oklahoma “roots” and replanted them in Los Angeles in 1964...with great success! She loves Los Angeles...its rich history, its vast stretches from Pacific beaches to the mountains, its generous welcome to the world to come and make your place, just as she did. What a city! After 38 years as (she says modestly) an excellent server at the National/Sepulveda Hamburger Hamlet, she began her “second career” as a receptionist when the Hamlets closed. A library docent since 1991, she also volunteers for L.A.’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, taking tours to learn and enjoy the public art at the rail stations. But her heart belongs to Central Library!
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.