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Feels Like Home: A Docent’s Life for Me - Part 14

James Sherman, Librarian, Literature & Fiction Department,
Graphic with Feels Like Home book cover
Chapter Six: Part Two in a series of excerpts serializing the book, Feels Like Home

This post is the fourteenth in a series of excerpts serializing the book Feels Like Home.

Chapter 6

A Docent’s Life for Me - part 2 by Delores McKinney, Central Library Docent

A date was set! The Goodhue would re-open on October 3, 1993! The temp closed in May so professional movers could prepare to transfer 120-plus years of accumulated knowledge from one location to another...seamlessly. Now the docents were (temporarily) homeless. We met at the Chinatown Branch’s community room; we met at a docent’s home; we met in a too-small room at administration’s headquarters, with people sitting on window sills and radiators, fortunately, cold in August. The question of the! When would we have access to the Goodhue, to practice our new tour? Through that long summer, we were repeatedly given dates, only to have them canceled. The construction wasn’t finished...

The other hot question? What should we wear for the big event? A division of opinion: some wanted an official look, blazer with slacks or skirt; others, more maverick, wanted no dress code. (The docents had always worn simple business/casual clothes for tours.) We turned to our librarian advisor, Joan Bartel, to decide. Her answer? White shirts or blouses, black slacks or skirts, docent pin, and a bright yellow ribbon with “Los Angeles Public Library Opening Celebration...Docent...October 3, 1993” printed on it. Easy, comfy, good!

yellow docent ribbon
Central Library Docents wore a simple yellow ribbon to identify themselves on opening day, [Image courtesy of Delores McKinney]

Finally! A date for us to be in the practice...even though it was October 2nd, Saturday before the Sunday opening. We met at 10 a.m. in one of the 5th Street meeting rooms, everyone glowing with excitement! As president, I started through a shortlist of reminders for the next day. It was maybe 10:20 when the loudspeaker system announced: “All unauthorized persons must leave the building at once.”

What?! We looked at each other...were we authorized? We thought we were, but...The question was settled a few minutes later when a person came to the room’s door and said we had to leave. We all nodded agreement. The door closed. Drat! Foiled again!

We conspired...We couldn’t go as a group but maybe if we went singly or in twos...If asked, we’d say we’re on our way out, as directed...Maybe we could at least sneak a look around... Personally, I saw the now-pristine rotunda, chandelier restored to its rightful prominence, and the atrium, no longer a chasm but all decked out with escalators and terra cotta pillars and gleaming green floors, extending downward...And huge colorful chandeliers! Amazing! Enough...I fled before I could be evicted!

October 3rd dawned a perfect Los Angeles day—warm, but not too warm, sunny and bright, cool breezes wafting by. We, docents, met at 10 a.m., in our new docent office (Wahoo!). We overflowed into the adjacent staff room. I brought plastic “champagne” glasses and (not plastic) champagne and sparkling apple juice and we all, in our black and white and yellow ribbons, joyously toasted a long and happy life for our beloved Central Library. Then we trooped down to lower level one in the atrium for a group picture or two.

crowds gather for library opening 1993
An enormous crowd showed up for the grand re-opening and 5th Street was closed off to accommodate the excited group, [Photo courtesy of Gary Leonard]

Now, it was time to go outside for the ceremonies, scheduled for 11 a.m. We squeezed out the north door and settled among the large crowd already waiting, spread along both sides of 5th street. It was only a few minutes until we heard the opening notes of the Trojan victory song...and the crimson and gold U.S.C. band began to flow down the Bunker Hill Steps to the crowd’s loud approval. After a few stirring pieces, when the music stilled, we could hear rippling applause and cheers coming toward us down 5th. A bright-polished 1931 fire engine slowly pulled into sight, carrying a boatload of important people, waving and smiling. They moved to a decorated platform and there were “remarks”, most of them thankfully short. Then, Mayor Richard Riordan and City Librarian Elizabeth Martinez cut the ribbon across the north door (When did that appear there?) and declared the library open. The big bronze doors swung wide...and we all surged in!

We had already decided that tours wouldn’t be possible; the library would be too crowded. (We had no idea HOW crowded it would be, though!) Instead, docents were stationed around the library, at the doors, in the lobby and rotunda, in the departments, to answer questions and welcome people. The first couple of hours, there were SO many was hard to even move. It was thrilling! After the long drought of visitors at the temp, we were now overflowing with celebrating Angelenos.

Huell Howser at library opening
Huell Howser was one of many media personalities at the opening. He dedicated a full episode of his popular program to visiting the Central Library reopening, [Photo courtesy of Gary Leonard]

My “15 Minutes of Fame”, though it was actually more like “3 minutes”, came when another docent told me, “Huell Howser is looking for you. He’s in the rotunda.” I threaded my way through the happy crowds and found him upstairs.

He was an amazing comfortable to be with that you forgot the camera and simply talked to this interested guy who asked questions...(That night...finally home, fed, and husband and I watched “Visiting” on KCET and I was delighted with my small part in his now-preserved record of our wonderful day! Best moment? Telling him that while the Goodhue was gorgeous...with its marble and murals and new art... What really mattered were the incomparable collections...that deep, rich, ever-nourishing well of information on every one of the MILES of shelves!)

What a day!

We docents had an ultra-busy schedule of tours now that the Goodhue was back. It seemed everyone wanted to see our lovely library! We had two “walk-in” tours a day and sometimes as many as six other scheduled tours in October and into November. We had guessed that Monday (after the celebration) would be a normal day though, back to business. The first trial of our new tour came at 11 a.m., our first “walk-in”. Kathy Tusquellas and I would see how it worked in practice. We had 45 people waiting! We divided them, did the tour, and arrived back in the lobby about find it simply awash with visitors! Our “Monday-to-Friday” business and working neighbors were here to welcome Central Library back! I started just walking up to people and asking, “Can I help you?” People asked me:

“How do I get a library card?” “Where’s the history department?” “I want a book about fashion.” “When’s the next tour?” “What hours are you open?” “Where are the magazines?” “I’m interested in genealogy.” “Do you have best sellers?” The most frequent question? “Where are the books?”

For a month after that, we scheduled docents in the lobby for two hours around noon to simply answer questions and give directions, in addition to docents doing the tours. The library responded as well to its new-found popularity. There was one person issuing library cards that first Monday. The next day, there were four and still, there were lines of patient patrons each day, waiting for their new orange and blue card.

Our tour underwent a major change some days after the opening. I was in the history department for the first time...the bottom of the atrium...and came out to ride the escalators to the first floor. I looked up...and caught my breath!! Those chandeliers of Thermon Statom...the ones that looked like children’s art from the first or second floor...were magnificent from below!! We had to change our tour!! No tour should leave without that view...and, now, no tour does.

crowds view new central library 1993
Opening day crowd move through the Atrium under Thermon Statom’s impressive chandeliers, [Los Angeles Public Library Institutional Collection]

As the docents grew accustomed to their new venue, there were a few glitches. A docent came breathlessly into the office...“The Ivanhoe murals are gone! I took my tour to see them and they’re gone!” This was serious indeed! It took a visit to international languages on the first floor to assure myself they were really still there...Then I realized what had happened. The docent was on the second floor, in art/recreation, where there’s an identical “nook”...same shape, same size...that houses the sports collection...and has no murals, instead of the first floor. Not the first...or the last...mistake made but, all in all, the docents did a yeoman’s job of touring all our new...and old...admirers.

The people of Los Angeles had nearly lost one of their greatest treasures but it had been saved and had risen, Phoenix-like...bigger, stronger...historic beauty preserved, new beauty added...and they embraced it with love.

[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.