Feels Like Home: The Early Days at New Central - Part 18

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

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

Chapter 9

The Early Days at New Central - part 1 by Bob Anderson, Librarian, Literature and Fiction Department

I think I can say with certainty that the entire Central Library staff was happy and excited to be moving back to 630 W. Fifth in October of 1993. The temporary Central on Spring Street had enabled us to make our collections and services available to the public for the previous four years, but it had always been a stopgap until the “new” building was ready.

In those first weeks, we were trying to get our work areas organized and get ourselves oriented between our shifts on reference desks since we’d only been allowed into the building a few days before the grand opening. The plan had been to spend at least a couple of weeks setting up, but delays in getting the occupancy permit had scuttled that option. What we encountered in those early days was a library space that was vastly superior to what we’d had before, though it did have its own set of problems and peculiarities.

ceiling mural by artist Renee Petropolis
The new Central Library lobby featuring a ceiling mural by artist Renee Petropolis. (Foaad Farah, Los Angeles Public Library Institutional Collection)

It soon became clear that we really had two buildings connected to one another—the Goodhue original and the Bradley wing. Most of the collections and much of the reference staff were now housed in the new addition. It was wonderful to have all the extra space, plus working air conditioning. Old Central had had no air conditioning, of course, and what we had on Spring Street had become increasingly problematic in the last year or two that we were there. It did take quite a while for the temperatures to be properly regulated, though. In those early days, some floors would sometimes be too warm while others were too cold. We now had a much larger percentage of the circulating collection on open shelves, but those big reading rooms made it more difficult to assist patrons in areas far from the reference desks.

Our workrooms were also much larger than what we’d had before—and there were a lot of empty cubicles because budget cuts in the previous few years had reduced the staff to a much smaller number than planned for. In the closed stacks area, we experienced compact shelving, both manual and electric, for the first time.

As can be expected in a new building, there were some problems that became apparent pretty quickly. Leaks in the roof on rainy days were discovered fairly early on—both in the atrium and on the upper floors. There were no major disasters, but we did have to use plastic sheeting from time to time in some areas, and each winter the maintenance crew would repair things as best they could. It took quite a number of years before some money became available to completely redo the roof. Another early problem was the lighting over the reference desks. For some reason, the lights installed there were not particularly bright, while lights in other parts of the reading rooms were much brighter. It took quite a while to fix this because it was not just a matter of putting in brighter fluorescent tubes; the light fixtures themselves had to be completely replaced. When this finally happened, we had been in semi-darkness for so long that I remember feeling like I was “on stage” at our suddenly brightly illuminated reference counter!

Another thing I remember from early days working in the Bradley Wing is the initial response to the three Therman Statom chandeliers in the atrium. To me and a number of others, they seemed almost garishly over-the-top at first, and we had quite a few negative comments (along with some positive ones) from patrons on them. But over time I got used to them and became rather fond of them, and most people who experience them today seem to enjoy them. So I guess Mr. Statom was slightly ahead of his time in designing this project—though it’s also possible that the colors are no longer as bright as they were initially.

Therman Statom’s glass chandeliers
View of Therman Statom’s glass chandeliers which received an initial mixed reaction, but have grown popular in the passing years. (Los Angeles Public Library Institutional Collection)

As for the Goodhue portion of the library, going into those rooms was a strange experience for those of us who had worked there pre-fire. The rotunda and the old reading rooms on the second floor were still there, but they were very different from the dusty, stiflingly hot spaces we’d worked in—or from the fire-and smoke-damaged wreck we’d left behind in 1987. The enormous card catalog and the general information desk were gone from the rotunda, and it often seemed quiet and lonely when I passed through it.

The former history department was now beautifully repurposed as the children’s literature department, and the old social science and literature rooms were also part of the children’s space. The former fiction room now housed the music collection; some years later it would be turned into Teen’Scape.

View of the Teen’Scape department
View of the Teen’Scape department. This space housed the music department at the time of the 1993 opening, but adjustments to the Goodhue Building have remained a work in progress. (Los Angeles Public Library Institutional Collection)

And the science department room, which had received the most damage in the fire thanks to all the burning microfilm in the patents collection, was now the popular library and large type collection. Eventually, it would be turned into the Getty Gallery, and popular library would be relocated to the first floor while large type would go to literature.

Some of the eastern annex of the original building had been demolished to make way for the new wing, but the old children’s and art rooms were still there, now attached to the new international languages and arts and recreation departments respectively. By contrast with the new spaces next to them, they both looked much smaller than I remembered them.

The administrative floor was now called the fourth floor rather than the third because there was a new third floor below it that contained rare books, the literature department workroom, and a “conference center” room. That area had previously been the very crowded top-level (seventh tier) of the closed stacks, housing most of the periodicals for history, literature, business, science, and social science, plus many older science department books as well. The fire had been at its worst in that area, and almost everything had been either destroyed or damaged. The new rooms and corridors there were now almost completely unrecognizable. The Goodhue building basement, which had been a large collection of closed stacks in spaces with colorful names like Baronial Hall, Toad Hall, and Rat Alley, was now offices for the catalog department (previously on the administrative floor) and technical services (previously in the Anderson Street building).

To be continued...

Robert Anderson became a librarian in what was then the Fiction Department of Los Angeles Public Library in 1980. In 1991 he was selected as Fiction Subject Specialist for the Literature and Fiction Department and has held that position since then. He was, rather ironically, working on a weeding project in the Central Library closed stacks on the day of the 1986 fire, and he considers the subsequent seven years that ended in the Grand Reopening to be the most traumatic but also the most transforming and inspiring of his life and career.

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.