"A Wanderer and Homeless Waif": Los Angeles’ Central Library - part 2 by Glenna Dunning, Former Librarian, History & Genealogy Department
In 1879 the City Council passed an ordinance establishing the "Los Angeles Public Library" and making it a department of the city. Los Angeles assumed responsibility for the library's financial support, and the Library Association surrendered its authority to a new Board of Regents appointed by the Mayor.
A year later the library suddenly found itself without a librarian. Littlefield had been dismissed for offending readers with his abominable-smelling jimsonweed and his successor, Patrick Connolly, was fired for taking more interest in the downstairs saloon than in books. Mayor John Toberman offered the position of City Librarian to18-year old Mary Emily Foy, a recent graduate of the first class of Los Angeles High School. Foy made a deal with the mayor and City Council that, if she were hired as Librarian, she would go to Oakland and "study under the best librarians on the coast." This condition was accepted and, in 1880, Foy became the third librarian (and first woman librarian) of the Los Angeles Public Library. She received a salary of $75 a month, out of which she was expected to pay the janitor.
When she started her work she doubtless made note of discrepancies between the public libraries of Los Angeles and the Bay Area of Northern California. Foy's realm consisted of a book-room, a newspaper room, and a ladies' reading room. Downstairs were various unscholarly establishments such as Benjamin's Boot and Shoe Store (which advertised its address as "67 Main Street, Downey Block, under Public Library"). Also downstairs was one of the city's busiest saloons. Its habitués often made their way upstairs where they would ask Foy to settle ongoing bets on such questions as "Who wrote Webster's Dictionary: Noah or Daniel?"
Mary Foy seemed to take everything in stride, including her wide-ranging roles as hostess to ladies who used the Ladies' Reading Room, and as a mediator of the men's daily chess games. "Chess tables had been a part of library equipment since the day the reading rooms were opened. The players lined up at the door at ten o'clock every morning, waiting for the librarian to open the doors, and they left reluctantly at five o'clock when the librarian was given two hours for refreshment and rest. At seven o'clock they returned to take their seats at the tables beneath the windows overlooking the patio of the inner court below."
Tourists were arriving in increasing numbers to Los Angeles and Foy made a special effort to reach out to them. "One of the great services of the library in that day," she later recalled, "was to just act as headquarters for all the tourists who happened to be here. Anybody coming into any hotel in Los Angeles-any stranger in the city-all were welcome to take out books if they wanted them. I always saw that they left a deposit that was big enough to cover the value of the book they borrowed." She also encouraged serious researchers, one of whom was the young engineer William Mulholland. On one occasion she bent her own rules and allowed him to check out a reference book, explaining that he was "the first human being to come into the library to ask about anything that has to do with water."
She kept detailed accounts of library expenses and it is interesting to discover such budget items as "25¢ for ice to put in the tin water cooler and 10¢ for a lifter for the wooden stove lid.” Foy was librarian until 1884 when she left to become principal at Los Angeles High School, later devoting her energies to women's suffrage. She recalled, "I have always been proud of my work as librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library, altho' it was such a small and unscientific institution and every possible office was included under one head."
In March 1889 a new Library Board of Directors was established by an updated city charter. The Board was directed to "take charge of the library and to conduct its affairs in the interest of the city." Within a few months the Los Angeles Times reported that "the directors have made a careful investigation of the property which was turned over to their care and upon such examination find that their sole possessions consist of about 5000 books, many of which are of the trashiest sort, a few dilapidated chairs, broken down tables, unbound volumes of newspapers, and three small, ill-odored rooms which few care to visit."
The Board quickly determined that the library needed new books, a new librarian, and new quarters. Soon a $10,000 appropriation was made for books, and a new and dynamic City Librarian, Tessa Kelso, was hired. The Board portrayed her as "a lady who has spent years in studying library work," but it was soon apparent that she was no ordinary Victorian lady. Within months of her appointment, Kelso impressed others as being "a brilliant woman who wore her hair short, smoked cigarettes, walked down Broadway without a hat, and possessed encyclopedic knowledge about books and their authors." She also had a fiery nature and sued a local preacher for "moralizing about her in the pulpit." Regardless of her personal eccentricities, Kelso initiated a rigorous and able administration. Books were classified and catalogued, a training class for library assistants was established, printed lists and catalogues were published, a reference department was established, and the collection as a whole was improved.
Kelso and the Board of Directors soon turned their attention to the problem of finding a new home for the library which was growing rapidly, not only in collections but also in patronage. It was obvious that the old Downey Block location was inadequate for any future growth and, after considerable discussion, the Board of Directors, with input from Kelso, recommended that the library should move to "much improved quarters on the third floor of the new City Hall, an imposing red sandstone and tile structure on Broadway between Second and Third.” The City Council agreed and plans were made to move the library into the City Hall location by August 1889.
"The library [was to be] closed for a period of two months, during which time the books were cleaned, repaired, counted, classified, numbered, bookplates inserted, placed in position, shelf catalogued in duplicate, and a card catalogue begun” but by the end of summer the new quarters were not ready. The Los Angeles Times explained that "the new edifice cannot possibly be got ready before the 1st of September. The gas fixtures for the halls have not arrived yet, and the elevator is far from completed. In view of these facts, it was decided to defer the opening of the library till September 1st, and in the meantime, the newspaper reading-room in Downey block will be kept running." Expectations and impatience among the reading public were running high; on August 21, 1889, an exasperated library patron fumed in a letter to the Times that "because the Public Library has been closed so long during the progress of the changes ... the replenishing of papers in the Downey-block reading-room has been much neglected."
The Board quickly determined that the library needed new books, a new librarian, and new quarters. Soon a $10,000 appropriation was made for books, and a new and dynamic City Librarian, Tessa Kelso, was hired. The Board portrayed her as "a lady who has spent years in studying library work," but it was soon apparent that she was no ordinary Victorian lady. Within months of her appointment, Kelso impressed others as being "a brilliant woman who wore her hair short, smoked cigarettes, walked down Broadway without a hat, and possessed encyclopedic knowledge about books and their authors." She also had a fiery nature and sued a local preacher for "moralizing about her in the pulpit." Regardless of her personal eccentricities, Kelso initiated a rigorous and able administration. Books were classified and cataloged, a training class for library assistants was established, printed lists and catalogs were published, a reference department was established, and the collection as a whole was improved.
On September 2, 1889, the library's new location on the third floor of City Hall was officially inaugurated and the Times enthused that "the reopening today...marks the beginning of a fresh era in its existence." The library's quarters were described in detail and it was noted that "the fittings of the rooms in the City Hall...are on a scale of plain solidity, combined with artistic taste...Everything is in white oak, and the effect is light and pleasing. The rooms are spacious, airy and well lighted; the principal room in which the books are contained is 70x50 feet; the general reading room is 75x30 feet, and there are besides two smaller rooms devoted, one to the use of the librarian and the other to the custody of the Patent Office reports and public documents...The ladies' room will be greatly appreciated for its air of comfort and convenience. It is nicely carpeted, well lighted, and is about 25x80 feet in size." The Times concluded that "a casual inspection of the Public Library, in the new City Hall building, will prove an agreeable surprise to those of our citizens who have not yet been there. The improvements which have been made since the library was located in the Downey block are remarkable. The library, under the present management, is an institution of which Los Angeles may well feel proud." Equally proud was the Library's Board of Directors and they noted in their 1889 Annual Report that "we have now the satisfaction of seeing the library located in spacious, well lighted and airy rooms, which have been furnished throughout with library fittings of the most improved designs and constructed of the best possible materials."
A month later the Times reported that "the library in the new City Hall has reading-rooms that are thronged day and night. The large, airy, and comfortable rooms afford a striking contrast to those in the old Downey Block, and there will be no difficulty about their becoming very popular." Additionally, "it is hinted that arrangements will soon be made for lectures on literature to be given to ladies in the ladies' reading-room." Another improvement was an elevator which promised to be "a great convenience to ladies, who dread three flights of stairs to the library rooms." As it turned out, this convenience was not provided free of charge—the city charged the library "$40 per month toward the expense of running the elevator between 9 o'clock a.m. and 10:30 o'clock p.m."
The new location did, indeed, attract "throngs of patrons" and circulation rose dramatically, from 4,833 in September 1889 (when the Library moved) to 11,076 one year later. Ironically, just as had happened a decade earlier, these increases were leading to space problems. The Board's Annual Report for 1890 noted that:
"owing to the large addition [of new purchases] that has been made to the shelves...we have found ourselves at this time in a dilemma on account of the limited accommodation...Since the arrival of a large quantity of reference books in different departments, there has been an increasing demand for examination of the same by persons who are evidently students, desirous of using the library for the purpose for which it is intended. In order to give these people the accommodations they need for the examination of many books at a time, we have segregated a certain space, but find that it is entirely insufficient, and we think that this growing demand should be properly met, which can only be done by an extension of the floor space now at our disposal."
The City Hall location contained only 6700 square feet and the Board suggested that "if we had at our disposal the whole third floor of the City Hall we could establish a creditable reference department...without this space it cannot be done." Tessa Kelso added that "the large number of newspapers from surrounding towns, on file in the Reading Rooms, required so much space that their continuance was deemed impracticable, and the donors of the papers have since transferred them to the Chamber of Commerce, where they are on file for use of the general public.” She and the Board agreed that more space was needed immediately and that "the time seems ripe for putting the Public Library into a building of its own, and to let it rank thereby with other public libraries in cities no larger than our own."
Glenna Dunning (1947-2015)
In the History & Genealogy Department at Central Library, Glenna Dunning was the go-to librarian with questions relating to really early Los Angeles history and was able to keep all those adobes and ranchos straight. If some aspect of Los Angeles history piqued her interest, it wasn’t long before an article she penned on the subject showed up in the Los Angeles City Historical Society Newsletter. Glenna’s many historical writings are cited in the library’s California Index and serve as a tangible reminder of the dedicated librarian who served her beloved city well. A fully cited version of “A Wanderer & Homeless Waif” is available on request.
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.